Always ready for Mother Nature's best shot in the Keys

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Seven Mile Bridge, left, and the original, pedestrian- and bicycle-only span, connects Knight's Key in the Middle Keys to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys.
Seven Mile Bridge, left, and the original, pedestrian- and bicycle-only span, connects Knight's Key in the Middle Keys to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys.

It is hurricane season, and in a place like the Florida Keys, mobility and evacuation options are far more limited than they are throughout the rest of Florida. But clients who are heading to the Keys between now and the end of November can take comfort in knowing that the people who will be hosting them during their stay are well prepared for whatever Mother Nature has in her plans.

"Every May 1 we pull out the hurricane plan and start putting it into action with our staff," said Karen Thurman, general manager of Hyatt Place at Faro Blanco Resort & Yacht Club in Marathon, who has worked in the hospitality industry in the Keys for 26 years. "Every property in the Keys has one."

In addition to assembling fresh back-up supplies such as food, water and batteries, one of the key things Thurman plans for is recovery: how quickly the staff can get the hotel back up and running after a storm. "Guests with plans to travel on a Friday following a Tuesday storm expect business as usual," she said. She and her team update their employee lists to know at what category of storm each member will evacuate (decisions are based on their individual situations), where they will go, how they can be reached and how quickly they can be reassembled for recovery.

During hurricane season, Thurman said, "At the first sight of a storm off the coast of Africa, we start working through a checklist, communicating with staff and making arrangements," such as ensuring a refrigerated truck is parked in the lot to be able to store food. "The longer more of us have been in the industry down here, the more we know what to do."

Sharing that knowledge is a major component of the annual hurricane preparedness conference that has been hosted by the Monroe County Tourist Development Council (TDC) and the Hotel and Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West each May since 2001. "The storm is only about 10% of the equation," said Thurman, who is a regular at the conference. "Preparing is about 50%, and recovery is the other 40%."

Attendees include hotel general managers, chief engineers, emergency management personnel and National Weather Service meteorologists. Together, they review plans, share information, build connections and improve communication; honing emergency plans from one year to the next.

Over the past couple of years, the National Weather Service has been signing on regional stakeholders such as hotel properties as Weather-Ready Ambassadors who become engaged in weather information, promoting safety, engaging in collaboration opportunities and sharing stories of resiliency, said Matthew Moreland, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service in Key West, serving Monroe County.

The meteorologists at the NWS Key West office provide weather updates directly to Emergency Management office and the TDC at the same time.  According to warning coordination meteorologist Jon Rizzo, "We try to eliminate the passing of information from one group to another by providing directly to both." Rizzo noted that this isn't the typical flow of information in most regions, but that the two offices have worked together to improve the flow and accuracy of information to better serve the public.

Further, said Rizzo, "The TDC has their information reviewed by both Emergency Management and the National Weather Service to make sure the quotes are authentic, correct and contain the proper message."

"This is my third coastal posting, and this is the best relationship I've seen between a weather services office and those involved in the tourism industry," said the National Weather Service's Moreland.

"Yes, we're an island chain and there's a possibility of a hurricane," said Andy Newman, media relations director for the TDC, who estimates the chances of being evacuated from the Keys to be about 1%. But what should be reassuring to guests, he said, "is that we have an active communications program, and we're transparent; we have information on the website fla-keys.com available year-round."

"If we ever do get a hurricane threat, we will add a sticky banner to the top of every page on our website that warns of the situation and gives specific information about what you need to do, and what visitors planning to come to the Keys need to know so they can make timely decisions," Newman added.

A large bar across the bottom of the homepage is labeled "Hurricane Season Information" and covers everything you need to know "to not only advise your clients, but to do so with confidence that they will be safe," said Newman.

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