For almost 20 years, the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West and Monroe County Emergency Management have teamed to communicate hurricane safety information before and during the six-month storm season, which started June 1.
The effort started in 1998, actually outside of hurricane season, due to what’s known as the Groundhog Day storm, in which a tornado or tornadoes touched down on Grassy Key on Feb. 2. Resorts on the island were severely damaged but the ruin was isolated. Still, some mainland news outlets were reporting widespread damage Keyswide when that wasn’t the case.
With the mainland press painting an incorrect picture of despair, Keys tourism officials felt the need to punch back, rightfully so. The goal of the tourist industry, after all, is to attract visitors to spend money.
So leaders with the Monroe County Tourist Development Council (Director Harold Wheeler) and what was then called Stuart Newman Associates (now NewmanPR,), the Keys’ marketing agency, met with then-County Administrator Jim Roberts, then-Public Safety Director Reggie Paros, then-Emergency Management Director Bill Wagner and others to express their concern that the wrong message was being relayed on the mainland.
The idea was to establish better lines of communication and provide information to visitors to understand how storm procedures work in the Keys. The goal was to make visitors feel more secure but, on a larger scale, to let them know the reality on the ground, whether good or bad. After all, in August 1992, news outlets nationwide were reporting the Keys were destroyed in Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when that was not the case at all.
A TDC advisory system to inform guest lodgings of hurricane information was established, ironically, just before its first test, which occurred a few months later during Hurricane Georges in September 1998. Georges’ damage (it was a wind event, not a water event) was largely confined to Marathon and the Lower Keys, especially Big Pine Key.
The payback for the tourism industry occurred a few weeks later with Wagner giving the (800) FLA-KEYS (352-5397) visitor phone number to Weather Channel viewers during a live interview. Callers dialing in could get the latest on the status of the Keys.
In 2005, the TDC began publishing hurricane safety information on its www.fla-keys.com website and publicized the cooperative relationships with the lodging industry and emergency managers. The collaboration earned the TDC public service awards at the national and Florida governor’s hurricane conferences. It was the first time a tourism agency had been acknowledged by either conference.
The Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West got involved earlier, in 2001, suggesting an annual hurricane conference where the Keys tourism industry is updated about hurricane contingency plans. The Lodging Association has organized the conference in partnership with the TDC each year since.
This past Tuesday, the conference was at the Hyatt Place Faro Blanco resort in Marathon, where experts outlined safety communication and resource information for tourism and other businesses.
It's about working together to keep visitors safe, and to let the outside world know what’s going on down here, whether good or bad. That includes if there’s a need to evacuate tourists if such an order is issued by emergency management officials. This type of communication instills confidence in our visitors who would have no misgivings about returning once it's safe and the infrastructure has been restored.
With hurricane season under way, we commend those who coordinate and participate in not only the annual conference but in the complex efforts to keep all people safe in the event of a storm.