Hurricanes: Industry prepares for the worst, hopes for the best

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MIAMI -- Hurricane preparations for the 1999 season, which began June 1 and runs through Nov. 30, were well in hand long before the National Hurricane Center issued its first ominous predictions for a brutal storm season.

Officials in the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico and U.S. coastal regions, particularly Florida, said they are prepared for the season, which forecasters said will bring nine intense storms, four of which will be Category 3 or higher.

Category 3 storms have sustained winds of up to 130 mph, and cause storm surges, flooding and heavy structural damage.

With memories of Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn in 1995, Georges and Mitch last year and lesser storms in between, no one is taking any chances this year. "Unfortunately, we've had a lot of experience in this area," said Clement "Cain" Magras, acting commissioner of tourism for the U.S. Virgin Islands. "Our infrastructure was rebuilt after the '95 hurricanes; major electrical and fiber-optic cable lines have been buried to [protect them from] wind damage, and strict building codes are in effect for every home and business rebuilt and built within the last three years," Magras said.

The USVI measures duplicate what has taken place on many Caribbean islands in the hurricane belt. For example, the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. is working with the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association and the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau on a crisis management program that details specific steps and procedures to be followed when a hurricane strikes.

The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism recently hosted the third annual Weather Conference for more than 100 broadcast meteorologists from North American television stations. The aim of the meeting was to provide insight into the nature and tracking of Caribbean storms, island safety procedures, regional geography and the role of the media.

The Bahamas Hotel Association again is offering a complimentary insurance policy for vacationers who cannot travel to the Bahamas due to a hurricane. The policy provides a full refund or a future stay at the same property.

Visitors already in the Bahamas when a storm hits are charged the lowest rates possible and offered all possible courtesies, the hotel association said.

More than 80 small and large properties in the Bahamas offer the hurricane insurance policy. In addition, regional governments in the Caribbean are taking disaster preparations seriously.

Jeremy Collymore, head of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency, said the region now is better prepared to deal with the onslaught of hurricanes and other natural disasters. "We are seeing an upsurge in governmental investment in disaster management activities," Collymore said.

"Prime ministers have asked their officials for reports on the state of preparedness. It is not business as usual," he said. "Disaster management is no longer seen as simply a sector for donor aid but as an essential sector for investment," he said.

Collymore reported that 70% of its member countries have disaster management offices. These include Belize, where there has been "a transformation of political commitment" since a brush with Hurricane Mitch last year, he said.

Lucy Valenti, a spokeswoman for the Secretariat for the Integration of Central American Tourism, based in San Salvador, El Salvador, said a major problem for the region during Mitch was "the inability to get information out to the marketplace."

"El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua lack the organization and budgets to deliver quick answers to the tourism industry during emergencies," she said.

A United Nations study to address this situation is due for release in July.

A Civil Protection Committee, established after Hurricane Gilbert devastated Cancun and Cozumel in 1988, has developed procedures for evacuation, shelters, supplies and medical services, according to Marisa Steta, marketing director for the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The committee meets regularly before and during the hurricane season to augment current procedures and to ensure that everyone is up to speed," Steta said.

In the U.S., officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have recommended the strengthening of building codes in regions traditionally in the hurricane belt.

James Lee Witt, FEMA director, said the agency does not enforce codes. "Enforcement is a state and local issue, but we highly recommend that states take a hard look at their codes," Witt said.

Florida officials said the state's communities evaluate their disaster plans on a regular basis. For example, the Monroe Country (Florida Keys) Tourist Development Council works with the Keys Emergency Management Office to assist in evacuating visitors in a hurricane.

The program was successfully tested last September before Hurricane Georges struck the Lower Keys and Key West. "Typically, many tourism offices bury their heads in the sand and hope that a hurricane doesn't hit them," said Harold Wheeler, director of marketing for the council.

"We want visitors to be comfortable when visiting the Keys, even during hurricane season, and make them aware that the tourism council is concerned for their safety."

A number of Web sites are already tracking hurricane information. These include www.fema.gov/ and www.storm99.com.

Laura Dennis, Carla Hunt, Henry Magenheim, Lori Tenny and David Wilkening contributed to this report.

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