Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hotel Guests Flee North Carolina Coast

Hotel News Now: As early rain from Hurricane Irene began in the Carolinas Friday morning, hotels on the coast were in the midst of evacuating while hotels more inland were scrambling to find beds for evacuees. Both residents and out of town guests were encouraged to view VisitNC.com, where a list of counties with mandatory evacuation was available, as well as a list of counties that were accepting lodging for evacuees.

“They have started evacuation in many of the counties and the ferries (from coastal islands) will stop running tonight,” said Nina Gibbs of VisitNC.com.”Even the residents are leaving. We are instructing people to call the visitor’s center of inland counties to see if accommodations are available.”

According to the National Weather Service, the North Carolina coast, specifically near the Outer Banks region, is expected to experience 110-mph winds late Friday and into Saturday morning as the Category 2 storm bares down. The storm is expected to spread northward throughout Saturday night. As the storm is predicted to follow a path north as far as New York, as many as 65 million people could be affected, according to the National Weather Service.

In parts of North Carolina, mandatory evacuations were underway as early as Thursday. On the Hampton Inn & Suites Outer Banks website, a note simply states, “Property evacuated due to Hurricane Irene.”

Paul Stone, president and CEO of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, said each hotel on the North Carolina coast has detailed evacuation plans because of North Carolina’s history of storms. “On the business side, the hotels are going to be evacuated so obviously they’re not going to have business over the next few days,” he said. “But these hotels are built to handle this weather and immediately following the storm they’re going to open as soon as they can because it’s assumed local residents will need lodging. They’re going to want to help the community.”

Demand moves inland
More inland, at the Hampton Inn Roanoke in Halifax County, GM Priscilla West was scrambling Friday morning to accommodate new guests who were displaced from their vacations. She said guests started arriving Thursday and occupancy quickly reached capacity. “Our first priority is taking care of the guests we’ve got,” she said Friday morning amid answering questions at the front desk. “We are super busy and we’re so happy.”

At the Days Inn Weldon, just off I-95 about two hours inland from the Outer Banks, GM Terry Webb said Friday morning that she has six rooms left to sell. She compared her phones to 'hotlines.' “Our area, our recreation center, is already set up for emergency management and our grocery stores were restocked last night,” Webb said. “Kids are in school and we’re waiting to see what she’s going to do. We just want to make sure we’re prepared. I don’t want another (Hurricane) Floyd; I don’t want to watch mobile homes floating down the interstate tomorrow.”

Webb said her property began receiving heavy traffic Thursday, mostly from displaced vacationers. Friday morning seemed to bring residents who were forced to evacuate. On Thursday, Webb went over emergency preparedness procedures with the staff. She has set aside a few rooms so extra staff members can stay on property and she’ll be staying to help out as well. A few rooms will also be set aside “in case the hospital calls and says someone is on a respirator. We don’t have generators and I don’t know of any hotels on this exit that do. We’ve got a few portable grills in case we lose power and about 50 flashlights for the guests,” she said. “We’ve been there.”

Webb said her hotel’s experience during Hurricane Floyd in 1999—a storm that triggered the third-largest evacuation in U.S. history—was 'humbling.' “There were one or two hotels near us that started price gouging and we learned not to do that,” she said. “They lost power, yet I didn’t. So when you do what’s right, right things will happen.”

Irene’s aftermath
Hurricane Irene battered the capital of the Bahamas over Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, but most hotels on the island reported only minimal damage. Some resorts on the island set up emergency shelters Wednesday night in preparation for the storm, as Nassau's downtown is known to flood even in heavy rain.

“Our major resort areas, Nassau and Grand Bahama, have fared better than expected as the storm moved east,” said Frank Comito, executive VP of the Bahamas Hotel Association, on Friday morning. “We had high tropical storm force winds in Nassau, which are now dying down. All major resorts are expected to be accepting guests (today).”

At the Atlantis, in Nassau, media spokeswoman Megan Marchesini said the hotel 'sustained only minimal impact.' “All guests and staff are fine and have been following Atlantis hurricane protocol throughout the night,” she said Thursday.

Once the Bahamas Hotel Association realized the potential intensity and path of Hurricane Irene on Monday, the organization teamed with the Ministry of Tourism and Aviation to activate a plan recommending early departure by guests. “Several thousand guests took advantage of early departure,” BHA’s Comito said. “The airlines were very responsive with many adding additional flights to accommodate early departures. Still, we estimate nearly 10,000 visitors opted to remain in The Bahamas during the storm and the hotels accommodated those who opted to remain.”

Moving forward
Irene is expected to produce rainfall accumulations of 6 to 10 inches, with isolated maximum amounts of 15 inches, from eastern North Carolina into southeast Virginia, according to the National Weather Service. Through the weekend and into Monday morning, the storm is expected to touch Maryland, Delaware, eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, southeastern New York, western Connecticut and western Massachusetts.

“These rains could cause widespread flooding and life-threatening flash floods,” the National Weather Service reported.

Stone, of the NCRLA, said with next weekend being Labor Day weekend, his office is fielding calls regarding the status of hotels next week. He said he can’t guarantee it, but expects coastal hotels will be able to speed through clean-up processes and open as soon as Sunday.

In terms of cancellations and refunds, Stone said each hotel has its own policy, but that “basically anyone who was evacuated, even guests with reservations up to three days afterward, is going to get a complete refund.”

“The problem is people who want to cancel two weeks after, when the hotel is fine,” he said.

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