Super Derecho a Good Reminder to Prepare for Natural Disasters

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I learned a new word last week. I also saw firsthand how important it is for hotels to be prepared for unexpected calamity and chaos, because you never know when a storm with a funky name (derecho) will sweep from Indiana through the Mid-Atlantic states, leaving more than five million without power.

The massive straight-line windstorm with hurricane force winds came with little notice, hitting Fort Wayne, IN with 91 mph gusts the afternoon of Friday, June 29. Less than 24 hours later, on the southern coast of New Jersey in Tuckerton, an 81 mph gust was reported. The storms came the weekend before July 4th, one of the busiest travel weekends of the year, with temperatures soaring to near 100 in most places left without power.

I know, because on Saturday, my family left the Cleveland area and headed south on I-77 for a beach vacation in North Carolina. Thankfully, we had reservations for a hotel in Virginia that was unaffected by the storm, but along the way, we saw firsthand the ensuing chaos the power outages caused (thanks to the frequent requests from a three-year-old to stop for bathroom breaks).

Without power, most gas stations had to close, leaving holiday travelers in a precarious position as they headed to and from beach vacations. Beckley, in the middle of the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, is the most popular stopping point for shopping, gas and lodging along 77. We were beginning to run low on fuel and of course were about to make our fifth pit stop for our daughter. The first, and main exit off 77 in Beckley, was closed. The next was filled with dark restaurants and gas stations with crudely written “Closed” signs on the doors, yet cars five deep lined the fuel pumps.

We stopped at a Country Inn & Suites, one of more than a dozen hotels in Beckley, to use a pitch-dark bathroom, and hopefully find out where the closest working gas station was. “Rumor” had it Princeton, WV, about 40 miles south, may have had power and gas. Random people lurked in the lobby and parking lot, left without a room and enough gas to get to the nearest place to refuel.

The front desk staff handled question after question about where gas could be found, shooing down rumors that the nearby Wal-Mart was still open (it didn't even sell fuel).

Power in Beckley had been out since Friday evening, and wasn't restored until Sunday afternoon. The acting GM — a regional manager with the management company — told me by phone afterward the staff was completely prepared and handled the situation well.

Bottled water was handed out, and the staff took turns walking the halls every 30 minutes for manual safety checks. Hot breakfast was out of the question, but plenty of donuts and bagels were served. With temperatures hitting 100, and no air conditioning, check-ins were allowed only in emergency situations. Some hotels nearly shut down because of the unsafe temperatures.

The staff I saw in action looked prepared and was handling the situation better than I would have expected. With the hotel sold out Friday, the Country Inn & Suites was lucky in some ways to be nearly full staffed. And several of those not scheduled to work came in to help.

Does your hotel have a plan for an unexpected and widespread power outage? On one of your busiest days of the year? With temperatures climbing into triple digits?

If not, let this be a lesson. And if you do, let this be a reminder to review your safety protocol with all employees. You never know when a super derecho will hit.

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