Hurricane safety is good business in the Keys

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KEY WEST, Fla. -- Tourism officials in the Florida Keys and Key West take a novel approach to the sensitive subject of hurricanes: Communicate openly about them.

Typically, tourism departments tend to bury their heads in the proverbial beach sand and hope they dont get hit, said Andy Newman, a spokesman for local tourism board the Monroe County Tourist Development Council (MCTDC).

But we realize we are in a storm area and we want to make sure our visitors are safe, he said. We dont like doing visitor evacuations. We realize they are inconvenient. But we are taking a very proactive approach to hurricane management.

Instead of languishing in hurricane denial, the MCTDC has organized a formal communications program in close coordination with local emergency management officials.

When danger lurks in the form of an emerging storm system, the council works with emergency management officials to get information to visitors in the Florida Keys about the storm and how to avoid danger.

When we get a hurricane threat, I go to the National Hurricane Center as part of the emergency management team and monitor things, said Newman. We send out a series of e-mails and fax blasts to media, the airlines, AAA and to every property that has a fax line. We post all the information on the Visit Florida site, [such as] the position of the hurricane, the condition of the exit routes, places of safe refuge.

When the danger subsides, Newman returns to his regular job of promoting tourism to the Keys.

Im one of the few people whos charged with the responsibility of getting people to leave the Keys, and then when the storm is over to get them to come back, he said.

Because of the particular geographic features of the Keys, authorities often begin visitor evacuations even before there is a hurricane watch, which is invoked 36 hours before the possibility of storm-force winds.

In the case of Hurricane Wilma in October, visitors were evacuated a week before the storm actually hit.

Weve got to react earlier here than almost anywhere around, except maybe a Caribbean island, said Newman.

The only roadway in and out the Keys is U.S. Route 1, and often after an evacuation the threatened storm never materializes, he noted.

Out of four or five evacuations, we may only get hit once. Its a very difficult decision, but you dont have any choice.

Any evacuation decision is very costly to the economy of the Keys, which relies almost solely on tourism.

The local economy lost $45 million in the case of Wilma.

While Florida Keys tourism officials understand the economic ramifications of ordering evacuations, Newman noted, they are also charged with saving lives.

We do this because we want travelers and travel agents to know that if they or their clients are in the path of a hurricane, the tourism council will be working hand in hand with emergency management officials to keep them safe, he said, adding that normally tourist boards and emergency management officials rarely see eye to eye.

They hardly ever work with each other, Newman said. Here in the Florida Keys, we have a different situation.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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