As Hurricane Ian churned toward the Gulf Coast of Florida on Tuesday, airports closed, residents and tourists fled mandatory evacuation zones and people who stayed were making last-minute preparations.
Many of Florida’s prime tourism spots were affected: Airports in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Bradenton were closing Tuesday; Orlando International Airport said it would cease operations at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. Busch Gardens in Tampa was closed Tuesday through Thursday, while Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld in Orlando and Legoland in Winter Haven were closing Wednesday and Thursday.
Hurricane season, which lasts from June 1 through Nov. 30, still has months left before it ends. For travelers in the path of a major storm — Ian or any other — experts say it’s important to stay aware and prepared.
Josh Dozor, general manager of medical and security assistance at risk management company International SOS, said travelers should always have backup phone battery chargers on end — and especially during hurricane season. He said it’s also important to bring adequate medications, baby formula and pet supplies if traveling with a baby or pet. A hard copy of a map is also important in case cell service is knocked out.
He said that if travelers are going to find themselves in the path of a storm, they should have enough food and water on hand for 72 hours.
Rich Harrill, director of the International Tourism Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, also recommends having flashlights and batteries and “a very good first aid kit” on hand.
Harrill said travelers should pay attention to local TV, radio or news websites to keep track of emergency announcements.
“Don’t let those sneak up on you,” he said.
Dozor said tourists need to keep their phones charged and enabled for automatic alerts to get push notifications about tornado warnings, evacuation orders or other precautionary measures.
He said floridadisaster.org is a key emergency management site in Florida, and RedCross.org is a good resource to find shelters.
Even in areas where the storm isn’t hitting directly, there could be threats, so travelers in a widespread area should monitor emergency notifications. Dozor said tornadoes were a risk in South Florida on Tuesday, for example.
Listen to emergency warnings
Dozor, formerly deputy assistant administrator for response at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he recommends evacuating even if there’s only a voluntary evacuation announced — and definitely if there’s a mandatory order.
Travelers generally don’t have a pantry full of food or a support system nearby, key reasons to get to a safer area. And he said emergency workers will need to focus on priorities like people with medical conditions who rely on electricity or who aren’t able to move.
“You don’t want to add a burden to that already strapped infrastructure,” he said.
W. Craig Fugate, former FEMA administrator, told The Washington Post in 2019 that travelers should check to see if their hotel is in an evacuation zone and potentially stage an early exit.
“If you can, you don’t want to wait until evacuation orders are given,” he said. “You might want to curtail your trip a little early.”
Plan an exit strategy
If your family isn’t together, or might be separated, set a plan for where and when you’ll meet up.
“Pick a point on the map, pick a location and a time and stick to that,” Dozor said. “Assume cell coverage will be shoddy.”
He said travelers should keep in mind that hotels will likely be booked along evacuation routes, not just by evacuees but also by emergency responders and power restoration workers heading in the direction of the storm. It might be necessary to veer farther from the main routes for a place to stay.
Transportation routes might also be limited; Florida and other states will often switch all lanes of a highway to go in one direction — away from the storm — or restrict movement in some lanes to emergency use only.
Prepare for the aftermath
Hurricanes aren’t just one-day events. Dozor said they can cause prolonged power outages, poor cell coverage and fuel and food shortages for 50 to 100 miles. Travelers should makes sure their phones and backup batteries are charged before a storm and conserve battery power. Texting is better than calling for keeping battery life and making a connection.
He said emergency services could also have trouble reaching an area.
Flooding could also be a danger once the storm moves inland and up through Florida and into the Southeast, Dozor said.
Your cruise will (likely) go on
Cruises have been playing a game of tropical weather dodgeball the last couple weeks, first with Hurricane Fiona and now with Hurricane Ian. Operators have rerouted some ships to quieter parts of the Caribbean, switched ports of call and spent days at sea to avoid bad weather. At this time of year, passengers shouldn’t get too attached to an itinerary.
Carnival Cruise Line said Tuesday that two of its ships scheduled to return to Florida ports could face delays. Carnival Paradise left Tampa on Saturday and is staying overnight in Cozumel. It will start to head back to Tampa Wednesday, “but remaining a safe distance from the storm as the company determines when Carnival Paradise can return to the Port of Tampa after the U.S. Coast Guard assesses conditions,” a Carnival statement said.
Carnival Elation will go to Freeport in the Bahamas on Wednesday; its return to Jacksonville on Thursday could be delayed, the company said.
Carnival canceled two cruises, the Carnival Paradise from Tampa and Carnival Elation from Jacksonville, which were scheduled to depart Thursday.
Consider travel insurance
Insurance can provide some coverage if a trip is canceled because of a storm, depending on the policy. But that purchase needs to be made well in advance of a looming hurricane.
“Whether it’s a tropical storm or a hurricane, once the storm is named, your options to cover events related to the storm are close to none,” travel insurance comparison site InsureMyTrip said on its website.
Airlines typically offer waivers so travelers to or from affected areas can change flights without additional fees, as they’re doing for Hurricane Ian. American Airlines said it capped fares at a maximum of $684 each way for the main cabin, and $884 for premium cabins for people flying to or from more than a dozen Florida airports through Oct. 2.
Tourists who need to fly out of a destination ahead of a storm should be aware that airports might close, as many in Florida have this week, and flights might be canceled.
Individual hotels might offer vouchers or refunds in the case of a hurricane-related cancellation, but that’s no guarantee. Airbnb says that hurricanes are not covered under its “extenuating circumstances” cancellation policy that allows guests to cancel for credit or a refund.
Dozor says that whenever he travels to hurricane-prone areas at this time of year, he makes sure to check the hotel policies and buy insurance.
“If I’m traveling to the Southeast states during August, September, I always do it,” he said.
The Atlantic hurricane season
The latest: The 2022 season started out slow, but has rapidly intensified this fall with conditions prime for storms. Fiona brought severe flooding to Puerto Rico before making landfall in Canada, and now we’re tracking Hurricane Ian as it heads for Florida. For the seventh year in a row, hurricane officials expect an above-average season of hurricane activity.
Tips for preparing: We rounded up seven safety tips to help you get ready for hurricanes. Here’s some other guidance about keeping your phone charged and useful in dangerous weather, and what to know about flood insurance.
Understanding climate change: It’s not just you — hurricanes and tropical storms have hit the U.S. more frequently in recent years. And last summer alone, nearly 1 in 3 Americans experienced a weather disaster. Read more about how climate change is fueling severe weather events.