With powerful Hurricane Irma approaching, Caribbean resorts faced
a dilemma: Evacuate guests or hunker down and provide them with shelter?
Baha Mar, the new Bahamas megaresort near Nassau, chose to
order its guests to evacuate while two competing resorts nearby, the Melia
Nassau Beach and the Atlantis Paradise Island, remained open. In fact, Atlantis
not only sheltered some 1,200 guests but also opened its doors to hundreds of
locals, according to Atlantis president Howard Karawan.
Though he never called out his competitor by name, Karawan appeared
to allude to Baha Mar last week when he said, "It is during times like
these that we see it as our moral responsibility to support the community as
best as we can, not close our doors on them."
He added that many of Atlantis' restaurants remained open
during the storm.
Evacuation experts, however, said the decision to remain
open or evacuate is rarely clear-cut.
George Haddow, a former deputy chief of staff at the Federal
Emergency Management Agency, said that in addition to questions about the level
of on-site training, the ability for a hotel to generate power during a storm
can be a factor.
Topography can also come into play, as can the fact that a
hurricane's path is unpredictable. As a result, two resorts relatively near
each other can be dealing with different risk factors, said Susan Cutter,
director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University
of South Carolina.
"Atlantis is close to the water, but it may not have
the same [storm] surge action as Baha Mar," Cutter said. "Baha Mar is
right on Goodman Bay, which has that kind of concave feature that may funnel
some of the water a bit more."
The Grand Hyatt Baha Mar shut down on Sept. 7, saying that "guest
services will resume as soon as it is safe for our guests and associates to
return." The hotel reopened on Sept. 12. (The Grand Hyatt is currently the only hotel operating at
the resort. The SLS and Rosewood aren't open yet).
"There were no guests in the hotel, as most volunteered
to leave early prior to evacuation," Hyatt spokeswoman Shea Oliver said. "All
went home and not to any shelters of any kind, as they left early."
She also said, "The team at Baha Mar and Grand Hyatt
Baha Mar took every precaution and determined that because the island was
within the projected path of one of the most severe hurricanes in recorded
history, the best course of action was to take action while there was still
time and safely evacuate all of our guests from the island. We worked with
every in-house guest to support the rebooking of flights, arranged
transportation and assisted with their travel needs."
Nassau and the entire island of New Providence was largely
spared from the storm and actually welcomed evacuation flights from other parts
of the Bahamas. Both the 694-room Melia Nassau Beach, which is about a
quarter-mile west of Baha Mar, and the 3,400-room Atlantis Paradise Island,
about 8 miles east, reported that no storm-related damage had been sustained.
Given that the Melia did not evacuate, however, Bahamas
tourism officials implied that one issue in the evacuation decision might have
been Baha Mar's layout and the fact that its convention center is not
physically attached to any of the hotels.
"To close the hotel and not be faced with the liability
of moving people from the hotel to the convention center is what motivated that
decision," Bahamas Tourism Minister Dionisio D'Aguilar told the Bahamas
Tribune. "They need to address that issue moving forward."
Regardless, Haddow said such decisions increase in magnitude
for island locations because visitors don't have the opportunity to simply
drive away from the storm.
"When Katrina hit New Orleans, the hotels just threw
[guests] out, and they ended up in the Superdome," said Haddow. "New
Orleans is like the Bahamas. People don't drive there, they fly. So, if you
want to get out, you have to get on a plane."