Hurricane Protocol and Best Practice Tips
By Greg Winey President, NorthPointe Hospitality Management, LLC | October 27, 2019
Hurricane Dorian, a storm that at its most powerful grew to a Category 5, rained down on the Bahamas and the east coast of the United States not long ago. NorthPointe Hospitality Management, which owns and operates an expanding portfolio of properties across the Southeast, had four coastal hotels in its path.
While we are fortunate that none of these hotels sustained damage, the weeks and days leading up to and following the storm tested everything. They tested not only our ability to physically prepare the buildings for possible damage, they tested our patience and resolve in the face of the unknown.
Coming into the 2019 hurricane season, 2018 hurricanes were still fresh on everyone's mind. Hurricane Florence, a Category 4 hurricane, ended up skirting the coast of Georgia and South Carolina as a tropical storm before making landfall as a Category 1, when it eventually slammed into the North Carolina Coast. Hurricane Michael started as a Category 1 and ended as a Category 5 hurricane, slamming into the Florida panhandle. Both caused billions of dollars in destruction and loss of life. One hurricane felt like a false start, the other felt like a sucker punch.
I cannot overstate enough the unpredictability of these events. Don't EVER try and time a hurricane. The "close calls" now have me concerned that we will lower our guard and be tempted to "ride it out." Though hurricane season lasts from summer to fall, September and October are much more active months. A peak time in hurricane season is here, in full swing. It's time to be prepared.
If I had to encapsulate my hurricane experience as a staff member, hotel department manager, hotel general manager, director of operations for multi-unit hotels and president it would be the following:
1. Hurricanes are Defining
They test one's character, resolve, patience, perseverance, resourcefulness, fear and, most importantly in our business, where we are the caretakers of guest and staff, they test leadership.
I've also stated often that, "it takes a hurricane to see who you really have working for you." They can be career makers and career breakers.
Most importantly, the risk to personal safety is NOT worth any profit. Greed can kill.
Let's start out by understanding even good forecasters are generally not great forecasters. So, don't become a "rock star" forecaster; you're only kidding yourself. Things change quickly and they change slowly with hurricanes. It's impossible to know what path they will take. The 10 different hurricane models you are given will tell you that.
2. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
You must have ALL key staff cell numbers before, during and after the event. Your corporate office MUST become the command center for your hotels, whether you own/operate one hotel or 100. This means 24-7 continuous updates to keep all informed.
With properties located along the Southeast coastline, including one with a quarter-mile of oceanfront, we have learned through experience the importance of hurricane preparedness. The following steps will help protect assets, preserve business and ensure the safety of your team members and guests in the event of a weather emergency.
- Train WELL in Advance of Hurricane Season
Most brands require certification. Don't wait until you are "in" hurricane season to start your training. Become "command central" AT the hotel until you decide to stay or evacuate. Decide on your "WAR" room and means of communication in regard.
- Follow Evacuation Orders
Voluntary orders allow you some wiggle room on holding down the fort or deciding to leave. Mandatory orders are far more serious. I don't want my team at the hotel during a mandatory evacuation. What do you really gain? Some may disagree with me as they intend to "hold out" for additional dollars or want to be a "base" for emergency personnel. Just remember, the power WILL likely go out for an extended period. Now what do you do?
- Power Down the Building
Lightning strikes can wreak havoc on systems due to power surges. Cut the main power to the building if you are evacuating. Ensure your local utility company is aware of your actions before doing so. Additionally, ensure you fire department is in the loop.
- Lower Your Perishable Inventory
Dry goods are generally fine, but perishables will go bad after the power has gone out for an extended period. Move the inventory well in advance of any potential landfall event. You may have a generator, but often it will not power walk-in/reach-in freezers. I have stocked up before on perishables in the past only to discover that even after "icing them down" they were unusable and not worth contamination risks due to temperature drops.
- If You Stay During a Hurricane
Begin with a letter to all guests checking in and all guest "stay-overs." Explain what's likely going to happen during their stay (i.e. power outage, emergency lighting, emergency generator if you have it, limited food service our housekeeping services if power goes out, etc.). Communicate and plan for the worst, otherwise you set yourself up for unachievable expectations. Remember that extreme situations can call for flexibility and resourcefulness. It can be as simple as waiving a pet policy, since many evacuees will be traveling with their four-legged family members, or exhibiting ingenuity to problem solve in the face of massive flooding.
When the remnants of Hurricane Irma hit Charleston in 2017, the team was faced with hosting 400 plus guests, plus their 200 four-legged family members during a huge tropical depression. Most important was keeping them all safe, comfortable and calm. From wading through waist deep water and climbing over fences to borrow generators from the construction site next door to get enough power for the hotel to hosting an impromptu spaghetti dinner for hotel guests, the team was able to keep guests fed and comfortable during a stressful time.
- If You Vacate the Building
Let your local law enforcement, power company and fire department know. If some key staff members do intent to stay in town, ensure they have a master key. They can check on things before, during and after the event. It's VERY important to have eyes on the ground.
- Coastal Insurance is a Tough Gig
Most policies won't even come close to covering a hurricane event unless damage to the building eclipses 2-5% of the asset value. Even at that, you will have a big deductible. Do as much as possible to protect the asset if you must vacate the building. Sandbags at all ingress/egress points can help a lot regarding driving rain. PTAC units/vents are a great source for water intrusion. Stuff old towels, bathmats, etc., under the units after ensuring power is turned off.
- Have a Plan to Return, Quickly
"He who gets back first can often win the gold." It's critical to remediate quickly. Once the property is ready to go, ensure you have gotten with a public relations company to get the word out that "all is clear." Ensure your team knows EXACTLY what is expected of them so they can hit the ground running.
- UPDATE Your Brand/Independent Website
Your website is a formidable way of communicating. Ensure you are in CONSTANT communication with your website liaisons.
- Don't Sit on Your Hands
If you must vacate the premise, don't slack. Department heads should be given specific responsibilities as they wait to return to the hotel. Calling clients, guests, staff, etc. to keep them informed is paramount to a solid recovery.
- Get Staff Back ASAP
Shutting down and re-opening a hotel can be a phenomenal team building exercise. Take advantage of this. Remember, this is a very trying time for guests and team members. Often, your staff will be personally affected by these events due to damage, displacement, etc. Kindness goes a long way.
- If You Stay or Are a Refugee Hotel
Remember, this is a TERRIBLE thing for most travelers to have to endure. Sympathy and compassion will do wonders. Be a "memory maker" on the good side of things. Due to its inland proximity, Augusta, GA is a popular place for folks along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts to escape to when a hurricane threatens. Creating a "home away from home" atmosphere at one hotel has led many guests to returning storm and storm, even forming bonds with their neighbors down the hall.
Stock up on water, dry goods, batteries, flashlights, towels, etc. Sandbags can be hard to come by late in the game. If you're a coastal hotel, it's not a bad idea to have the bags ready – you can find the sand later. Whether right on the coast or a few miles from it, fill bathtubs with water – it's how you will flush toilets (using your ice bucket to fill the tanks if power goes out). Anything not bolted down on the exterior will become a flying object. Bring ALL exterior furniture indoors or simply sink it in your pool. Most importantly, stock up on patience and endurance.
Long hours will be the norm until the event is over. Even then, the lasting effects of a hurricane can linger for years. Katrina changed my life in a way I never thought was possible. Half of the population in New Orleans left after the hurricane, making it extremely difficult to find help. When you are rendered helpless as leader without the resources you are accustomed to having or take for granted, try this, "treat people in such a way that they would be ashamed to treat you otherwise," and watch what happens. It is YOUR influence that becomes most powerful. You will be in the "foxhole" with your troops and they will dearly respect and appreciate your perseverance, creativity, resourcefulness, hands–on approach and patience. It can be a defining moment in your career and in your leadership for the rest of your life.
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