Miami-Area Hoteliers Advised on Guest Evacuations during Hurricane Season

March 31, 2005
Emergency officials advise hotels not to send guests to shelters, instead they should evacuate inland

Miami Beach hotels were urged Wednesday to keep their guests out of shelters during hurricane evacuations, either by sending them home early or to other hotels on the mainland.

To drive home their point, local emergency officials offered a slide show on just how grim shelter life can be: people packed into a school cafeteria, families sleeping in hallways, adults squeezed into grade-school chairs.

"I don't know if you've heard of Smell-o-Vision . . . ," Bill Johnson, assistant director of emergency operations, told about 80 hotel executives gathered at the Miami Beach Convention Center for a pre-hurricane-season briefing.

The annual presentation took on new importance after Florida's record battering by four hurricanes last year. Miami Beach and other coastal areas in Miami-Dade and Broward counties were evacuated twice, uprooting tens of thousands of hotel guests in the midst of vacations and business conferences.

Miami-Dade officials say shelters are for local residents and should only be used by visitors as a last resort. Aside from taking up space and supplies, tourists sent to shelters are bound to return home with horrible stories of their South Florida stays, they said.

"If you think your guests are getting cots and blankets, you're wrong," Johnson said, noting shelters only offer bunks after a storm, when people left homeless need places to sleep. "This is not the way to treat our guests."

Broward County appears to take a different approach. Tourism chief Nicki Grossman said in an interview that her staff does not warn hotels against using shelters, and noted some of the larger resorts on Fort Lauderdale Beach sent their guests there with blankets and pillows during last year's storms.

"We don't recommend that they do not send their guests to shelters," said Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Absolutely, shelters are OK."

Hotels came under fire during Hurricane Frances when then Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas went on television complaining of some businesses -- officials said he was referring to hotels -- staying open during evacuation orders and forcing their employees to report to work.

Meanwhile, some hotel executives complained of Miami Beach being evacuated for Labor Day weekend for a storm -- Hurricane Frances -- that ended up hitting 90 miles away in Martin County. Four weeks later, the Beach shut down again for Hurricane Jeanne, which also went north to the Treasure Coast.

"Last year we had some mavericks on the Beach who decided they didn't have to evacuate during a mandatory evacuation," said Stuart Blumberg, president of the Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association. "That caused us some grief."

Miami-Dade tourism chief William Talbert urged hotels in evacuation zones -- including all of Miami Beach -- to sign deals now with inland hotels willing to accommodate their guests during a storm. Johnson said hotels on the mainland should take on extra guests during a storm by opening hallways and ballrooms to stranded visitors.

But finding rooms isn't easy. The Keys often evacuate before the rest of South Florida, sending tourists and residents to Miami-Dade hotels, where many local residents often wait out a storm, too.

"We're obviously competing with a lot of local residents," said Scott Smith, head of security for the Loews Miami Beach.

The 790-room resort uses a string of Miami-area hotels to house guests during a storm -- "as far west in the county as we can go," Smith said.