MYRTLE BEACH — New hurricane plans that could mean earlier evacuations have some Grand Strand hoteliers and tourism promoters concerned.
Leaders in the beach’s main industry aren’t yet sure how much of an effect the new plan -- the first major overhaul to the system in at least 20 years -- will have on tourism. Some predict the evacuations could be more devastating to the bottom line than previous plans while others say it might not make much of a difference.
Most just won’t know how it will affect tourism until the Grand Strand goes through the first storm under the new rules, which do away with voluntary evacuations and could lead to earlier mandatory evacuation orders because of expanded boundaries of threatened zones and a surge in the area’s population.
“We’ll just have to see how this new plan works out,” said Stephen Greene, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Hospitality Association, which earlier this month got an update on the new plan from Horry County Emergency Management Director Randy Webster. “There are just a lot of things to think through.”
Though evacuations for hurricanes are part of living on the coast, it’s something that can kill a tourist season for business owners, who say they understand the need to keep visitors and residents safe but don’t want evacuation orders to be given without considering the economics as well.
Frans Mustert, a longtime Myrtle Beach hotelier who runs Oceana Resorts, said the previous evacuation system worked just fine. The new system could be devastating for the beach’s tourism industry, he said.
“I don’t understand why they are trying to fix something that isn’t broken,” Mustert said. “I think it is going to be damaging to us and there is no reason for it.”
Emergency planners used lessons from storms such as Hurricane Katrina, the latest technology and population changes during the past two decades in creating the new evacuation system, which will take into account not only the intensity of the storm, but the potential for the storm surge. That led to areas that have never been included in evacuation zones, such as Socastee, Carolina Forest and Forestbrook, to be zoned and potentially included in evacuations.
It will take more time to evacuate with the additional zones, which could lead to earlier evacuations. Just how much earlier will depend on the storm’s strength and whether it is expected to come ashore during prime tourist season.
Calling evacuation orders earlier could be costly to businesses. And some tourism leaders fear that the evacuation order will be made, then the hurricane -- as many are known to do -- would turn away from the area, creating an unnecessary loss of business. Grand Strand hotels lost $30 million in August 2004 because of the mandatory evacuation of the area east of U.S. 17 Business for Hurricane Charley, the most recent mandatory storm evacuation order for this area.
Though the safety of visitors and residents is first, emergency leaders consider the impact on tourism as well in deciding when and if to recommend that the governor call an evacuation, Webster said.
“We are faced with a lot of challenges, but the technology is going to help us make a good decision,” he said. “I totally understand the economic impact when an evacuation order is recommended to the governor...Let’s don’t over-react, let’s don’t under-react. We’ve just got to walk that fine line.”
Business leaders are trying to work through all the implications of earlier evacuations, including what to do with staff and how to handle refunds to guests, Greene said.
“I think it is going to be something people are going to have to get used to,” he said. “We will just have to see. We’ll have to go through it.”
Jason Anderson of the Court Capri hotel on Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach, who grew up in the area, isn’t sure what to make of the new rules yet, either. But new roads that have opened since previous evacuations, including S.C. 22 and S.C. 31, could lead to a smoother evacuation, he said.
“We kind of have to have one before we start picking it apart,” Anderson said. “I think it will be fine.”
The Grand Strand hasn’t had a mandatory evacuation for a hurricane in about seven years, which adds to the uncertainty over the new system because so much has changed since then -- especially the surging population and new development. The complacency residents might have developed through those years is what concerns Horry County Councilman Gary Loftus, who also is a former hotelier who has seen his share of storms along the Grand Strand.
“We haven’t had to deal with it, and that’s what worries me,” Loftus said.
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