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13 Sep 2017

Comment: No easy decisions in face of hurricanes

Earlier this week on a TV news bulletin, when asked what tour operators were doing to help customers affected by Hurricane Irma, the commentator in the studio – described as a travel expert – replied that operators were making it up as they went along.

Derek Jones Opinion

"The only one making things up as it went along was the hurricane itself"

The thing with hurricanes – like pretty much every weather event – is that you can’t predict where or when they’re going to spring up and once in motion, it’s also difficult to predict where they’re going to go.

Hurricane Irma was a meteorologist’s dream, breaking a swathe of records as it swept through the Caribbean and on to Florida.

Irma was the first storm in recorded history to sustain wind speeds of 185mph for 37 straight hours, making it the strongest storm the Atlantic has seen, and the longest ever category five hurricane. It has generated more energy than the first eight Atlantic storms of this season put together, and when Irma was joined on Saturday by Hurricane Jose, it was the first time in history two hurricanes with 150mph winds played out in the Atlantic at the same time.

Faced with such a fierce and unpredictable monster heading their way, tiny Caribbean islands had to make quick decisions to protect their inhabitants, their visitors and their infrastructure. The amount of time available between being made aware of the threat from a hurricane and the storm arriving is short – normally no more than three or four days – and the direction of an Atlantic storm can shift dramatically in that timeframe.

By way of example, less than 24 hours before Irma arrived, Antigua was directly in its track and looked likely to be devastated, but then a deviation took the hurricane 40 miles further north. Antigua was still hit but its sister island of Barbuda was left virtually uninhabitable.

In the midst of such uncertainty, hoteliers, tour operators and airlines try to make the best decisions they can to protect their customers. Logistically, it is simply impossible to evacuate a Caribbean island; the best advice is often to sit tight in a safe place until the storm has passed. Modern hotels are designed to be able to survive the impact of even the strongest hurricane, and local communities are well practised in the best procedures to follow to stay safe.

There are no easy decisions; if you’re an airline or a big tour operator, how and when do you make the call to send empty planes in to bring people home, if at all? There were tens of thousands of customers in the path of Irma; Dominican Republic, Cuba and Florida are huge destinations.

It’s understandable that news channels will want to know how operators are reacting, and friends and relatives will be concerned about the safety of their loved ones, but the only one making things up as it went along was the hurricane itself. Meanwhile, you can be sure that the travel industry will be working as hard as it can in the short time available to make the best possible decisions, and the safety and wellbeing of customers is always at the top of our list.


Derek Jones is chief executive UK of Der Touristik

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