As Hurricane Idalia made landfall north of Tampa Bay early Wednesday, most hotels on Clearwater Beach were empty.
Pinellas County had issued an evacuation order two days earlier for Zone A, which directed all guests and residents to leave the barrier islands.
But the 286-room Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort and Spa stayed open, sending emails to guests and sliding notices under their doors with false information. “We have not been ordered to evacuate Clearwater Beach,” the messages said, adding that the resort and restaurants would remain open.
The resort slid letters under doors around 5 p.m. on Monday, four hours after Pinellas County announced the evacuation order that would take effect at 7 p.m. that night, according to six Hyatt guests interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times.
As Hyatt visitors lingered on the beach Tuesday morning before the storm, several were not aware that the barrier islands were under an evacuation order until informed by a Times reporter.
“They should have told us about the evacuation and have given us the choice” to stay or go, said Nadine Barsoum, who was visiting from New York with family and found the Hyatt’s letter under her door around 5 p.m. Monday.
The Hyatt declined to answer why it told guests there was no evacuation order in place after Pinellas County ordered guests on the beaches to leave. In a statement, general manager Jeff Thompson deferred questions to “local authorities.”
“The safety and well-being of our guests and colleagues is always a top priority, and even more so during natural disasters,” Thompson said.
Jevon Graham, Clearwater Fire and Rescue’s division chief of emergency management, said the city doesn’t have enough staff to check each hotel for compliance, especially 36 hours before landfall, and that adherence to evacuation orders is mostly an honor system.
“It’s negligent and they put people’s lives in danger,” Graham said of the Hyatt’s erroneous guidance to guests.
The evacuation order for Zone A applied to about 338,000 residents on Pinellas County’s coast, barrier islands and in mobile home parks. But many residents and visitors choose to stay. Cathie Perkins, the county’s director of emergency management, did not have an estimate for how many in Zone A actually heeded the directive.
Graham said hotel officials have an obligation to police themselves. Evacuation orders, he said, serve to protect human life, in this case, from dangerous storm surge. Portions of Clearwater Beach saw 4 to 6 feet of surge in the hours after Idalia passed the Gulf Coast.
And although Pinellas County issued the evacuation order on Monday afternoon, the Hyatt and 12 other hotels on Clearwater Beach should have required guests to leave a day earlier due to a longstanding rule that applies to hotels built with additional density.
In exchange for the city allowing hotels to be built with more rooms per acre than what the code allows in the vulnerable coastal storm area, those hotels’ development agreements include clauses requiring they evacuate guests any time the National Weather Service issues a hurricane watch for Pinellas County. The requirement applies even when there is no evacuation order from the county underway.
The logic behind the rule, adopted in 2001, is that getting extra tourists out early in a weather event would help ease road congestion later in case a storm worsened and residents in multiple zones ended up having to evacuate, Clearwater planning director Gina Clayton previously told the Times.
The National Weather Service issued a hurricane watch for Pinellas County at 4:58 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 27, for Idalia, according to senior meteorologist Tyler Fleming. That meant about 13 hotels on Clearwater Beach, with a combined 2,600 rooms, were required to tell guests to leave a day before Pinellas County’s Zone A evacuation order was issued.
In 2021, the Times published a story showing that hotels were not following this rule. And although dozens of beach hotels, except for the Hyatt, emptied when Pinellas County issued the evacuation order for Hurricane Idalia, it is not clear that any of the 13 under the density rule evacuated when the hurricane watch was issued on Sunday.
Shephard’s Beach Resort is one of the hotels subject to the hurricane watch rule because it expanded a decade ago with 42 more rooms than was allowed by code. General Manager Paul Andrews said all guests had cleared the resort by 11 a.m. Tuesday in response to the county’s evacuation order.
He said the resort does not evacuate upon hurricane watches because he looks to the city and county for guidance, and those local governments do not enforce the rule. Like evacuation orders, the rule for high density hotels to evacuate during hurricane watches is also under the honor system, said Graham, the city’s emergency management chief.
With less than 200 rooms, Andrews said Shephard’s is able to get guests out quickly during an evacuation order. He said hurricane watches don’t always lead to major storms, so evacuating guests at that early stage can seem unnecessary, he said.
“I think evacuating during a watch is a little bit too early because conditions can change so quickly,” Andrews said. “I think the clause needs to be looked at.”
Pinellas County also adopted the rule related to hurricane watches and higher density hotels in 2007. Only one hotel outside of Clearwater Beach, the Hampton Inn Dunedin, falls under the requirement.
Around noon on Tuesday, Lacy Fletcher sat outside the Residence Inn by Marriott Clearwater Beach with her suitcases waiting for an Uber to evacuate to Tampa before Idalia arrived. The hotel management had told her she had to be out that morning because of the evacuation order.
But directly across the street, she watched guests walking back to their rooms at the Hyatt.
“I don’t understand why they get to stay and we don’t,” Fletcher said.