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Hotel hesitancy influenced county’s evacuation decision

Mark Parker

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A crowded St. Pete Beach two days before Pinellas County officials issued a mandatory evacuation order in preparation for Hurricane Ian. Photo by Mark Parker.

Before Hurricane Ian made a last-minute turn to the south, forecasters called for Pinellas County’s coastal areas and barrier islands to receive a significant impact from the major storm.

However, according to Pinellas officials, owners of several beach hotels and assisted living facilities in the most dangerous areas refused to close their doors until directly ordered to evacuate.

Steve Hayes, president and CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, provided commissioners with a post-hurricane update on the local tourism industry during Thursday’s work session. He relayed that when tourists and residents were leaving the beaches, the county began pre-staging work crews in anticipation of the aftermath.

“But I will add that until we issued a mandatory order, they wouldn’t close down,” interjected Barry Burton, county administrator. “And that influenced some of our decision-making.”

Commissioner Rene Flowers then sought to clarify that hotels would not engage in evacuations until the county declared a state of emergency rather than when officials sent out a “precursor” asking for help.

As made apparent by counties to the south, explained Burton, issuing a mandatory evacuation is a complicated process. He said officials “tried to judiciously make that determination,” but the answer to her question was a resounding “yes.”

Burton added that he could not say all lodgings and resorts were unwilling to make that call, but there was no doubt that some were staunchly reluctant. Hospitality was not the only industry hesitant to make arrangements in advance.

“In the same way, we had 99 long-term care facilities, and many would not begin movement of people,” he said. “And go to their alternative places until we issued the mandatory evacuation order.”

One emergency room, said Burton, was also reluctant to heed the county’s warning until its leadership “finally made the right call.” He called communication with businesses ahead of the storm’s projected arrival “numbing.”

Burton credited cost and operational disruptions for the preponderance of resistance. He said that as part of an after-action review, county officials would conduct public outreach and discuss how best to make those decisions.

Flowers relayed a significant concern over the news and noted that lift stations in St. Pete Beach – used to pump waste and stormwater from lower to higher elevations – were offline in the wake of Ian. Much of the coastal community, and 200,000 Duke Energy customers across St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, lost power during the storm.

She also mentioned Charlotte and Lee Counties and how time is critical considering the unpredictability of a hurricane’s precise landfall.

“There were so many people, unfortunately, who lost their lives because that window shrunk,” said Flowers. “I just hope that we find a way because I would much rather see us err on the side of caution and make sure that our tourists get to safety, as well as people that reside here and work here.”

Tourism impacts

Hayes said tourism officials are aware of three to four conferences canceled following the storm. He and his team are reaching out to organizers to make them aware of what is open and that the area is safe to hold corporate functions.

Hurricane Ian damage at Polynesian Putter Golf in St. Pete Beach. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

He relayed the Visit St. Pete/Clearwater’s website features a banner on the home page that states the county is open to visitors, along with other information and beach conditions. Hayes said tourism officials are also promoting the area’s beach cameras – already a popular online destination – to show that people are out enjoying the sand and surf.

However, Hayes noted that the organization paused its advertising campaigns in the wake of Ian, an empathetic gesture in light of the destruction south of Pinellas. He added that people in other parts of the country believe the entire state is enduring storm-related impacts.

“We have an economic engine here that needs to run,” said Hayes. “But yet, in the same sense, you want to make sure we’re being sensitive to what’s out there.”

Commissioner Dave Eggers broached the subject of waiving bed tax fees for those seeking refuge from the storm’s impacts, as officials did during the state of emergency. Burton and the county attorney explained that it is possible but expressed several bureaucratic challenges to implementing such a measure.

“I think it’s worth a discussion,” agreed Commission Chair Charlie Justice. “It would be a financial hit, but I don’t know that it would be as big as what we’re thinking.”

Burton said administrators would explore that proposal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

1 Comment

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    Ron Ogden

    October 8, 2022at6:51 am

    Hotel operators are not emergency managers. They and other taxpayers rely on officials to make these calls. If each hotel operator has to make this call or be blamed, then why do we need public officials? What would have happened if hotel operators had ordered their guests out, someone had been injured in the unnecessary evacuation, and the storm never came? Who would Rene Flowers be dumping on then?

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