BY TUESDAY EVENING, former Hurricane Irma, now just a tropical depression, was pouring out its remaining rains over Tennessee. Days before, she had swept over Florida and Georgia, killing 17 people and leaving millions in both states without power and, in many cases, without homes, as the second major storm to hit the U.S. mainland in the past three weeks.
And yet, it was not completely unprecedented in Florida, and the effects of the storm were mitigated by years of hurricane experience, said Bharat Patel, the regional director for Asian American Hotel Owners Association in Florida. “In 2004, we had three hurricanes in a row,” Bharat said. “I think a lot of hotel owners learned a lot from that.”
Also, unlike residents of Texas who were caught off guard by Hurricane Harvey when it came ashore on Aug. 25, Floridians had nearly a week of warning to evacuate or prepare. But Irma was still a Category 4 hurricane when she made landfall at Cudjoe Key in the lower Florida Keys on Sept. 10, and the damage was severe as she plowed along the state’s west coast.
Hotels in Fort Myers and Naples, Florida, were the hardest hit in the state, Bharat said. The middle of the state and Orlando also were hard hit, and he was still waiting for more information on the impact in Jacksonville, Florida. “Some hotels are without power,” Bharat said. “Every hotel I know, every AAHOA member, sheltered in place. They stayed put to take care of their employees.”
Nurjehan Saju, general manager of the Howard Johnson Inn & Suites in Ocala, Florida, said Tuesday the power is off throughout the city. The hotel is owned by Hotel Development & Management Group, headed by Nurjehan’s sons, Navroz and Azim.
Navroz, president and CEO of Hotel Development & Management Group in Ocala, said on Friday most of HDG’s 12 hotels are in north central Florida, and those filled up fast. “In terms of sheer evacuation, this is one of the largest I have witnessed in more than 25 years in business,” he said.
Nurjehan said her 125-room Howard Johnson filled up a few days before Irma made landfall. The property site runs parallel to Interstate 75. “It was crazy here,” she said. During the storm, the power went out. “But today the sun is out and we are smiling.”
Two of HDG’s hotels are along Florida’s east coast in Titusville and DeLand. Navroz on Friday said, “We are very, very concerned about the staff.” The hotels are about a two-hour drive from HDG’s headquarters. With traffic-clogged roads, it was impossible to drive to them. “We have been talking over the phone and helping them prepare.”
Many other hotels in the state are taking in evacuees as well as first responders, Bharat said. “We are really trying to help people who were in shelters and are going to get transitioned into temporary housing,” he said.
The AAHOA owners also are providing rooms to law enforcement officers who do not have homes now, Bharat said. “We’re not worried about the rent,” Bharat said. “If an officer is worried about where his wife is staying, he may not be doing his job.”
AAHOA is planning a series of town hall meetings next week on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Naples and Fort Myers to address hotel owners’ needs, Bharat said. One major topic of concern is the need for insurance adjusters to help those with sufficient coverage for their properties and legal assistance for those who are uninsured. “What they’re looking for, really, is how do they get back on their feet,” he said.
Information on the meetings will be available on the AAHOA website, Bharat said.
Pimal Patel, a hospitality lawyer, has had little luck contacting hotels in Florida several days after Hurricane Irma swept over the state from tip to top. Internet and cell phone connections are down or weak, and owners of multiple properties are trying to reach the hotels’ managers and assess the extent of the storm’s impact.
“The Florida properties were either evacuated or they hunkered down,” said Pimal. “Damages are not fully assessed.” One of his client’s hotels has damage to the roof and some rooms have cracks in seals and doors. He was worried about clients’ properties in Miami, Key West and Fort Myers, too. “I’ve been on the phone all morning trying to get in contact with them.”
On Friday, weather officials expected the storm to hit Florida on Saturday and travel up the eastern side of the state. But the storm turned left and traveled up the west side and into central Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.
Al Patel, CEO of Baywood Hotels, said the company closed its Miami Beach hotel on Friday. Baywood has several hotels near the Miami International Airport, and Al said those were full. The buildings were constructed after Hurricane Andrew, a powerful storm that devastated south Florida and led to stringent building codes for homes and businesses.
To better serve guests in the airport hotels, Baywood ordered extra amounts of food and other items to better serve guests. “We are preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best,” he said. Attempts to reach him Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Meantime, HDG and its hotel employees were doing the best they can to serve guests who don’t really want to be there. “What we can control with the guest is to make sure certain things are taken care of such as their pets and their luggage,” Navroz Saju said on Friday. “We are being very flexible on our booking and cancellation policies as well as being generous with F&B.”
He noted Florida has a large elderly population and some guests have health care needs that require such equipment as oxygen tanks and wheelchairs. “We are being as nice as possible.”
Irma had plenty of strength left as it rolled over Georgia with tropical storm force winds and rain. More than 920,000 residents were left without power as of Monday afternoon, and gas stations across the state were experiencing fuel shortages, according to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.
Many Floridians had evacuated to the state, filling rooms at hotels such as the Wingate by Wyndham in Warner Robins, Georgia, run by Ken Patel. A few days before Irma made landfall in Florida, every room was full in his hotel off Interstate 75, the major corridor connecting Georgia and Florida, Patel told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Usually we’re busy on the weekends, but not this busy,” Patel said late Tuesday. “We’re usually not sold out.”