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Fall hurricanes make planners uneasy about coasts

Photo courtesy Harbor View Hotel and Kelley House

Hurricane season is a hit-or-miss proposition, and Keith Overton, chief operating officer for the Tradewinds Islands Resorts on St. Petersburg Beach, Fla., has a story to prove it.

Hurricane Charley was bearing down on the Gulf Coast in 2004, and landfall was expected near St. Pete.

“We relocated a huge piece of meeting business from our property to Orlando, expecting the hurricane to come through. It changed patterns and came in over Sanibel Island and then went inland and hit the hotel that we had moved the group to. We didn’t even have any tree branches blown down here.”

Stories like that one underscore the unpredictability of hurricanes. The weather apparently doesn’t spend a lot of time watching the Weather Channel or reading weather forecasts.

“The only person who doesn’t read these suckers is Mother Nature. She does what she wants,” said Dan Quandt, executive director of the South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau in South Padre Island, Texas, which took a direct hit from Hurricane Dolly in 2008, and was shut down to meeting business for a couple of months.

Hurricane season was mild in 2009
Last year’s hurricane season was the mildest since 1997, which perhaps helped lessen concern after a string of extremely active hurricane seasons.

Still, resorts and hotels in Florida and Texas, where some areas have been hit by hurricanes in the recent years, continue to battle the perception that hurricanes are a hazard throughout each state.They may be further challenged by forecasts for 2010.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac forecasts a major hurricane for Florida in September. The Tropical Meteorology Project at Colorado State University calls for above average hurricane activity in the Atlantic, with 11 to 16 named storms and three to five major hurricanes. The CSU team says there is a 64 percent chance that a major hurricane will make landfall on the U.S. coast.

It’s little wonder then that meeting planners might hesitate to book a coastal meeting site in the fall, considered the height of June 1 to Nov. 30 hurricane season.

“When you look at all the work that goes into putting a meeting together and the thought of having to do that all over again … that is the anxiety they have,” said Overton. “So even if they have to pay a few bucks to be somewhere else they would rather err on the side of doing that rather than taking chances with some bad weather.”

New England coast draws crowds
The threat of storms doesn’t keep everyone away from every coast. Many coastal areas, like New England, have gone decades without a major hurricane.

At the Harbor View Hotel and Kelley House in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, meeting planners don’t hesitate to book in the fall.

Courtesy Tradewinds Islands Resort

In fact, according to Alexandra Zullo, director of marketing, the hotel’s meeting space is already booked solid for one week in September.

It has been almost 20 years since a tropical storm hit the island and even then, damage was minimal.

The hotel was prepared for the subsequent power outage with flashlights, extra food and a backup generator. The generators actually come in handy during the winter, when heavy winter snows sometimes knock out power.

“People are starting to learn that fall is the best-kept secret on the island,” said Zullo. “By September and October, the water has finally hit 70 degrees. We were swimming until Oct. 17 two years ago.”

The last storms to hit the South County, Rhode Island area, a coastal region known for its 100 miles of beaches, were in the middle of the last century.

Like Cape Cod, the South County coast’s falls are warm, comfortable enough for one convention group to dig its own oysters and have an oyster roast a few years ago.

Florida most affected by hurricane concerns
Of all the coastal areas, Florida is the most affected by worries about hurricanes. It sticks out like a thumb in the sometimes turbulent waters.

Yet, it has been decades since some areas of the Sunshine State have been hit by a tropical storm or hurricane.

“We have not been hit here in 40 years,” said Dee Dibble, director of sales for the Doubletree Beach Resort in North Redington Beach, Fla., just south of Clearwater Beach. “The odds are you are going to be OK. And you’ve got to go with the odds.”

That doesn’t mean her hotel doesn’t think about the possibility. It is on an island, linked to the mainland by bridges, so hotel staff are updated each year in regard to evacuation policies.

The problem though is the perception that when a hurricane hits Florida, it affects the entire state.
“The news does harm,” said Dibble. “People will say, ‘I hear you are under water,’ but it is really only one area that has been hit. We are a really, really long state. If something hits Pensacola, for example, it doesn’t affect us here.

“We are trying to re-educate them. Just because it is hurricane season it doesn’t mean we will be hit by a hurricane.”

Even with the effects of Hurricane Dolly fresh on his mind, Quandt believes fall is a good time to meet on South Padre Island. Before that storm, it had been 28 years since a hurricane had come on land in South Padre Island, 2.5 miles off the coast of Texas.

Concern about tropical storms and hurricanes is a reality, but perhaps, from a statistical standpoint, not completely justified, said Quandt.

He points out that meetings don’t avoid San Francisco, because of the possibility of an earthquake. An unlike an earthquake, you can see a hurricane coming.

“The nice thing about a tropical storm or a hurricane is that you do have warning, and you can work with people if there is something brewing in the vicinity,” he said.

Cancellations better than bad memories
Quandt, who is also emergency management public information officer for the island, won’t hesitate to recommend cancellations if weather is threatening.

He did so a few years ago when high winds from a storm off the coast were projected to hit South Padre about the time carloads of cheerleaders would be crossing the island’s bridges, coming to town for a competition.

“We want their memory of South Padre to be a wonderful, positive experience, not something that makes them shudder,” he said.

When it comes to mental images of hurricanes, the devastation of New Orleans wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 seems to be what stays in people’s memories, Quandt said.

“Right now when people think of a hurricane, they think of scenes from Katrina,” said Quandt. “The vast majority of hurricanes are a definite event, but not that kind of event.”