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Beach hotels decry cost of early Fay evacuation

An early evacuation order for Pinellas beach communities in advance of Tropical Storm Fay cost hotels hundreds of thousands of dollars, say tourism executives.

As the storm approached Florida's west coast the afternoon of Aug. 18, Pinellas officials ordered mandatory evacuation of the county's most flood-prone areas for 6 a.m. the next day. They canceled the order about 5:30 a.m. as the storm made landfall south of Naples.

Tourism business leaders say the county overreacted, then failed to cancel the evacuation order later in the day as the storm's projected path veered south of the Tampa Bay area.

"Anybody staying with us wasn't going to stay until 4 a.m. and leave," said Timothy Bogott, chief executive of the TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach. "They just left."

The resorts lost at least $150,000 in canceled rooms and missed food and beverage sales.

Emergency management officials feared the storm might change direction when they recommended county commissioners order evacuation of mobile homes and low-lying areas the next morning, said County Commission Chairman Robert Stewart. If the board waited until evening, residents might not get word in time, he said.

"This was an unavoidable development," Stewart said. "We're always going to err on the side of caution."

The county doesn't have a complete report of economic losses from the evacuation, said D.T. Minich, the county's tourism director. About a dozen hotels, property managers and a tour operator, Virgin Holidays, wrote e-mails to his office about canceled rooms and extra expenses to accommodate rattled customers.

Among their complaints: Why didn't Pinellas start with a voluntary evacuation order, like Anna Maria Island and other locations closer to the storm?

"It was outrageous for the authorities to make the call prior to even being put on hurricane watch," wrote Philippe Eversdijk, general manger of the Marriott Suites Clearwater Beach. "The decision … shows lack of respect for our area's bread & butter: tourism."

The Sheraton Sand Key was hosting a meeting of the National Institute of Justice with 150 people who dropped their business and began looking for flights out of town after the evacuation announcement, wrote Jack Guy, vice president of sales and marketing.

Two other groups booked for next August — and expected to spend about $100,000 — now are questionable "due to the quick trigger pulled by the county" emergency office, he wrote. "All we would ask is perhaps in the future this agency will consider thoroughly the ramifications to the business community that result from decisive overreaction."

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384

Beach hotels decry cost of early Fay evacuation 09/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 15, 2008 2:34pm]

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