Refuge from the Storm
Hurricane Florence may not have Putnam County on its radar, but that doesn’t mean the hurricane is not affecting day-to-day operations in the county.
From the Putnam County Emergency Management team to the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce to Palatka hotels, many people are working to ensure Putnam County is prepared for future storms, as well as prepared for an influx of Hurricane Florence evacuees from North and South Carolina.
Interim Emergency Management Coordinator Ryan Simpson said his department has been working hard to ensure partner agencies have the training and supplies they need for hurricane season, even without Florence visiting Putnam County.
“Last year during Hurricane Irma, we had 70-plus people that were all working together in the emergency operations here,” Simpson said. “To do that, it requires coordination, willingness to work together and understanding the response process.”
Simpson said one way Florence has affected operations is that emergency operations throughout Florida have kept a close eye on the Carolinas and their evacuees.
“We participate in regular conference calls with the state of Florida as well as the National Weather Service in Jacksonville as it relates to Hurricane Florence,” Simpson said. “What is going on in North and South Carolina is being monitored in the state of Florida.
“I do know there are statewide efforts collectively to try to provide evacuees with information about hotels that have vacancies.”
Some of these hotels housing evacuees include Palatka locations, such as the Hampton Inn and the Holiday Inn Express. A number of local hotels have seen a noticeable increase due to evacuees, while it has been business as usual for others.
“We have not really had that many, but it is hard to determine if they are evacuating or if they are coming for work,” Holiday Inn manager Batka Bicarlo said. “We have some reservations, but not many. It is normal work here.”
Putnam County Chamber of Commerce President Dana Jones said one reason local hotels might not see a high number of evacuees is because there simply aren’t many vacancies.
“Our hotels are full already,” Jones said. “We’ve been running a real high occupancy rate. We have a lot of rooms occupied by temporary workers in our county for big projects.”
Jones said despite the now dwindling number of vacancies, the chamber of commerce is still reaching out to provide assistance.
“We stay on the phones constantly for accommodations for evacuees and the crews,” Jones said.
Meanwhile, Hampton Inn has seen a recent influx of evacuees from the Carolinas, and it is even adjusting some of its policies to accommodate them, according to front desk supervisor Morgan Ostrander.
“Absolutely we have had evacuees,” Ostrander said Thursday. “It has mostly been yesterday and today with people making reservations. I just checked in some people right now who are from South Carolina It has kind of been 50-50 because some cancel their reservations because they want to try to ride out the storm or for any other reasons.”
Ostrander said Hilton typically has a 48-hour cancellation policy, but the policy has been waived for people from the Carolinas and other affected areas.
“We aren’t going to charge them because of the circumstances of a natural disaster,” Ostrander said. “We want to help.”
In the midst of the scramble to accommodate evacuees and assist the Carolinas, Simpson said, Florida residents would still need to still keep up their guard because Florence is not the only storm brewing in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.
“The importance for residents is be mindful, because this is only the peak of the hurricane season,” he said. “The tropics have become very active the last two weeks, and there are other storms that very well may have effects that we are watching and monitoring.”
Simpson said one such storm the Emergency Management Center is monitoring is Hurricane Isaac.
“We are watching Isaac as it is going into the Caribbean Sea, and it may enter the Gulf of Mexico in the next week or so,” Simpson said. “The important thing for residents is to continue to be prepared for the rest of hurricane season.”