SURROUNDED BY THE devastation Hurricane Michael wrought on Panama City, Florida, on Oct. 11, Mahesh “Mike” Shah was a little stressed out, but extremely happy to be alive. He had just weathered the historic storm in the Comfort Inn & Suites he owns in the city, and he wasn’t alone.
Along with seven staff members, the hotel was at full occupancy.
“We were going to close it,” Shah said. “But there were a lot of requests from local people, and we decided to stay open to house them for safety.”
Shah’s company, Pineapple Hospitality, owns several properties around the city, and the Comfort Inn on Jenks Avenue was not the only one to sustain damage from the category 4 storm. But it did suffer the most.
It sustained damage to its roof, walls and canopy, Shah said. Windows were broken, water infiltrated and the hotel’s pool was blown out.
“All the light poles in the parking lot fell down,” he said. “Glass is shattered all over.”
Shah and his staff did manage to keep all of the guests safe, and most of them had evacuated by Oct. 11. Some few remained while they looked for a place stay.
The death toll from Michael stood around 11 Friday morning, according to the New York Times. That included four deaths in Florida, an 11-year-old girl killed when flying debris struck a home in Georgia and five in Virginia that included four drownings and a firefighter killed during an emergency call.
“We knew we were going to go against a really devastating storm that ended up getting worse as it approached,” Shah said. “But if we closed, where would they go?”
Shah has lived in Panama City for 25 years and he plans to stay as long as possible to help in the recovery.
“I am AAHOA lifetime member as well as actively supporting all of their activities and panhandle town hall meetings,” he said. “Our goal is to support our community as we work toward rebuilding all the properties that got damaged, including our hotels.”
A state of emergency was declared in the affected states. Thousands of people were out of power in the wake of the storm. In Florida, more than 19,000 power restoration personnel were pre-positioned to respond before the storm, and on Oct. 10 Gov. Rick Scott offered to provide “push crews” to help clear the way for utility company teams working to restore power. The crews are provided in cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the Florida State Emergency Response Team and will be funded through Scott’s emergency order.
“These additional crews will help get utility restoration workers into our communities faster, so they can do their jobs and bring back the power,” Scott said. “We hope that every utility acts quickly and takes advantage of this offer for assistance. We must do everything we can to get the lights back soon.”
In Florida alone, more than 375,000 were ordered to evacuate. The state had 38 shelters open, but many of the evacuees went to hotels in neighboring Alabama, much as they did last year when Hurricane Irma hit, according to AL.com.
In Birmingham, most of the 16,000 hotel and motel rooms in the city were booked, according to the report. The same was true in Mobile, which is on Interstate 10 that runs through the Florida panhandle. Most of the city’s hotels along that corridor were booked.
A little further north in Auburn, Alabama, the hotels managed by AU Hospitality, headed by president Vic Patel, were seeing an influx of refugees from the storm, the company’s Director of Operations Richard Richards told OANow.com.
The company’s 82-room La Quinta Inn and Suites in Opelika was experiencing 60-70 percent occupancy by evacuees, Richards said, and the rest of its properties are seeing similar guest flow. Most of the guests are from the Florida panhandle.
“The biggest thing that we are trying to do is think about the families,” Richards told OANow. “We’re getting extra snacks, extra food, board games, things like that.”
All of AU Hospitality’s hotels, including an EconoLodge and a Candlewood Suites in Auburn and a Comfort Inn in Opelika, were allowing pets, though they are not normally pet friendly.
Elsewhere in Alabama, all of Columbus, Georgia-based RAM Hotels’ properties also were housing evacuees from Hurricane Michael, said the company’s Executive Vice President Mitesh Patel. They also felt some effects of the tempest.
“Our hotels in Dothan were in direct path of the hurricane, and did lose power and other utility services,” Patel said.
He said some of his employees also lost power and could not return to their homes, and he was working on finding them temporary housing. The company also has taken extra steps to ensure their guests’ comfort.
“We advised our GMs to open breakfast during the evening time and also leave it open for an extended amount of time in the morning and to allow guests to grab any items they want from the hotel market shop,” Patel said.
As Hurricane Michael was bearing down earlier in the week, Baywood Hotels CEO Al Patel said he was “battening down the hatches” at his Wingate Inn in Destin, Florida. On Oct. 11, Al Patel said the Wingate escaped major damage from the storm, but he knew many of his panhandle neighbors were not so lucky.
“It’s a pretty bad situation,” he said.