October 10, 2004
There's nothing like a natural disaster at a tourist destination to kick the machine of public relations into full spin cycle.
Appealing for aid, governments paint a dark picture of destruction. Eager to regain business, the tourism industry cranks out sunny news releases saying, in effect: The water is fine. Jump right in.
Whom to believe? The only way to know is to visit. Of course, then you risk spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for what may be a memorably bad vacation. Or a good one.
Shortly after a flash flood in July 1976 raced through Colorado's Big Thompson Canyon between Estes Park, about 50 miles northwest of Denver, and Loveland, killing more than 100 people, I reserved a cabin at Estes Park, which is on the river.
As it turned out, the Rocky Mountain resort town had been unaffected. I had a fine stay and felt good about helping the strapped merchants.
On the other hand, unexpected closures, power outages and other problems can ruin your trip.
There's no one place to check out the recovery of a region you hope to visit after a disaster. News reports may be too general to give you the information you need. You'll do best if you check several sources. Be skeptical.
Orlando, Fla., is a case in point.
On Sept. 30, five days after Hurricane Jeanne swept through Florida, the fourth in a series of killer storms that also caused billions in damage to the state, a news release from a local tourist bureau was titled, "Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg/Clearwater Remain Unaffected by Recent Hurricanes."
There was "no damage to tourism infrastructure" in these areas, it said, and "all of the theme parks, attractions, hotels, restaurants, retail outlets and cultural venues are open and entertaining visitors."
On Sept. 30 I phoned 11 hotels in the Orlando area: some that had reported damage in earlier news reports, some nearby and others listed as "most popular" on the travel review site http://www.tripadvisor.com .
The tally from my survey: one hotel closed, three with structural damage, three with water damage and four reporting "not much" or no damage. (Hotels were recovering rapidly, so their situation may have improved by the time you read this.) Among hotels reporting damage:
Holiday Inn Orlando-Downtown: Its website said it was "closed due to damage from Hurricane Charley," which struck in mid-August, and was expected to reopen in November; InterContinental Hotels Group, which runs the chain, confirmed the information.
Crowne Plaza Orlando Airport: A tornado spawned by Hurricane Charley hit this 353-room hotel, said manager Kellie Hull. It smashed glass in the atrium, blew in walls, peeled off 10,000 square feet of exterior finishing and caused water damage. As of Sept. 30, about half the rooms, plus the pool, were closed. "We expect to be fully operational by Thanksgiving," Hull said.
Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress in Lake Buena Vista: "We lost a few sky roofs at the top," general manager Paul Tang said. "We lost a few trees." A front-desk clerk said 93 of the hotel's 750 rooms were unavailable because of damage.
Then I called Danielle Courtenay, vice president of public relations for the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc., which had issued the news release that reported a damage-free Orlando.
"I certainly did not want to misrepresent anything," she said. In fact, she said, another lodging, Hotel Royal Plaza in Lake Buena Vista, was also closed. When she wrote that all hotels were open after Hurricane Jeanne, she said, she didn't think to count those shuttered by earlier storms.
The bureau's website, http://www.orlandoinfo.com , on Sept. 30 listed three properties as "temporarily closed" but didn't identify them.
"The properties were not too wild about us naming them," she said. That's because eventually they would reopen, she said, and it would be hard for them to regain business if they had been initially reported as closed.
As for damage, she said, "Some of them told us, yes, they have some water damage in the rooms." Some residential areas in the Orlando area had "major damage, " she added, "but we only talk about the tourism corridor."
For another take on post-hurricane recovery, I visited the website of the state's Division of Emergency Management, http://www.floridadisaster.org . Charts and maps posted Sept. 30 showed Orange County, where Orlando is, sustained "severe damage" from Hurricane Jeanne and was operating under a local state of emergency, with an 11 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew. But Kelly Kwas, spokeswoman for Orange County Chairman Richard Crotty, told me the curfew had been lifted Sept. 27.
"It's fair to say there's some lag time" in posting storm updates called in from counties, said Mike Stone, spokesman for the state emergency agency.
A few phone calls may help you fill in the blanks.
Start with your hotel. Just because it's open doesn't mean you'll have a pleasant stay.
Yoleidis Hernandez, front-desk manager for the 636-room Grosvenor Resort in the Walt Disney World Resort, told me Sept. 30 that "pretty much all of the rooms" were wet. Some had a musty smell, but "it's not as bad as it sounds," she said, because guests were being moved to dry rooms as they became available.
You'll need to look at surrounding conditions that could affect your stay, such as power outages or curfews. The beach you hoped to frolic on may no longer be there.
"Check the area out, and be aware of the environment," Stone advised. Hotlines and websites run by county governments, he added, "are going to tell you about things like road closures, which are really important for tourists."
And if you do go, pack a sense of adventure. You may need it.
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