Walt Disney World theme parks and Universal Orlando Resort have reopened in Orlando after Hurricane Irma hit Florida, and the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg planned to reopen this week. But many other destinations in the state and the Caribbean affected by Irma and other storms remain off-limits to visitors, in some cases with extensive damage or power outages that will take days if not weeks to resolve.
Irma was at one point the most powerful recorded storm in the open Atlantic and its hit on the tourism industry will be significant, although an exact figure is still unclear.
Tourism accounts for 1.4 million jobs in the Sunshine State, where more than 112 million people visited last year and spent $109 billion. More than 7 million Americans visited the Caribbean last year, trailing only Europe as a top destination, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.
AIR Worldwide estimates that Irma’s damage to insured property in the U.S. will range between $20 billion and $40 billion, with damage in the Caribbean between $5 billion and $15 billion. Other estimates go higher, and that only accounts for damage covered by private insurance.
Here’s a snapshot of how the tourism industry is faring so far:
Universal Orlando Resort reported “relatively minor damage” to fences, trees, signs and facades as its theme parks reopened Tuesday. Its popular Halloween Horror Nights event will go on as scheduled Friday. Disney’s water parks won’t open till later this week but most other attractions are running.
The Dali Museum’s massive geodesic glass bubble, known as the Glass Enigma, “is fine,” but its “Wish Tree,” where visitors tie wishes written on their admission wristbands, was felled in the storm. Museum spokeswoman Kathy Greif said the museum hopes to restore the tree.
Florida Keys tourism spokesman Andy Newman said travelers should postpone trips there until “the destination is ready to receive visitors.” He said Key West’s famous “90 Miles to Cuba” marker is solid concrete and “ain’t going nowhere,” but cleanup and restoring utilities, communications and other services will take time.
Impact in the Caribbean varied. Widespread damage was reported in the British Virgin Islands, Barbuda, St. Martin and St. Barts, including its famed Eden Rock Hotel. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix was said by the Caribbean Tourism Organization to be “getting back to business,” but visitors were encouraged to avoid St. Thomas and St. John. Turks and Caicos had just a couple of open hotels, with others closed anywhere from one week to two months. But the Dominican Republic fared OK, and many hotels in Puerto Rico and the Bahamas — including the popular Atlantis, Paradise Island — reported being back to normal.
Despite the fact that not all Caribbean destinations were devastated, Professor Robin DiPietro at the University of South Carolina’s College of Hospitality, Retail and Sports Management, predicted in an email that the storm could have “long term impact ... as tourists generalize the Caribbean as a bad destination.” DiPietro said. “Fear may take over on tourists’ future planning, and people may book trips to other destinations.”
Kelli Howard of Tulsa, Oklahoma, canceled a January honeymoon in St. Thomas and instead will head to San Francisco: “We were worried that things on the island wouldn’t be rebuilt in time.”
Monique Pignet, who owns 18 rental luxury properties in St. Bart, was busy placing orders for new furniture. “We only had two cancellations but we received a lot of support messages,” she said in an email. “For New Year’s Eve we think we might be able to have 50 percent of our villas ready.”
Many cruise ships that homeport in Florida or were on Caribbean itineraries when Irma developed were kept at sea, had sailings canceled or made unscheduled port calls, in some cases stranding or delaying passengers. Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, for example, was kept at sea to avoid the storm, delaying passengers from returning as scheduled and postponing its next sailing.
Caroline Makepeace and her family were on Carnival Vista when it became clear the ship would not return to Miami as scheduled. “We had a choice to get off the ship in Cozumel, Mexico, and make our own way home,” she said. They flew home to Raleigh, North Carolina via a flight from Cancun.
Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor at large for CruiseCritic.com, counted some 50 sailings impacted by the storms across seven cruise lines, noting that it’s rare to outright cancel a cruise but that “Irma caused at least 20 outright cancellations.” Caribbean itineraries, which she said account for 50 percent of cruise business, will be drastically altered. Norwegian Escape, for example, has shifted ports of call for the foreseeable future from the Eastern Caribbean — including the U.S. and British Virgin Islands — to the Western Caribbean, which includes ports in Mexico.
According to Frank Comito, CEO of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, less than 20 percent of the region’s total hotel room inventory has been affected by Irma and the time needed to rebound varies tremendously by destination.
“Places like St. Thomas and the Turks and Caicos should rebound fairly quickly,” Comito said in an email. “Other areas which were impacted less like Antigua, St. Kitts, Nevis, St. Croix, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and The Bahamas have already rebounded and are open for business, having minimal damage, with airports fully operational.”
GLENS FALLS — Community organizations may be so focused on their own programs their staffs don’t know what else is available in the community.
The purpose of the first Community Resource Day held Wednesday at Cool Insuring Arena was to solve that problem by bringing together about 60 nonprofit groups from Warren, Washington and northern Saratoga counties. Fidelis Care sponsored the event.
Tyler Whitney, director of navigation services for Southern Adirondack independent Living, said the Intra-agency Council, SUNY Adirondack Community Hub, Washington County Action Angels and Fidelis Care joined forces on the project.
Whitney said a lot of the participating agencies are unfamiliar to the public and sometimes even to representatives from other agencies, as they do not have extensive marketing budgets.
“We’re getting a lot of positive feedback about the organizations that are here,” he said.
Ethan Brochu, office assistant for the Family Service Association of Glens Falls, explained the various services his organization offers, including helping people with rent, clothing and food. A special project the organization does is “Feet First.”
“We try to get kids shoes for the upcoming school year,” he said.
The organization will be conducting an “adopt a family” program the week of Oct. 9.
Brochu is new to his position, and he said the fair was a good opportunity for him to get familiar with the other agencies.
“It’s a great networking event,” he said.
Organizations were able to showcase new initiatives. For example, ECS Psychological Services was informing people it has had a South Glens Falls office open for about six months in addition to its offices in Saratoga Springs. ECS offers counseling for adolescents, children, adults, families and couples.
“Since we’re new to South Glens Falls, we’re making connections to see what’s up here,” said therapist Kellie Macura.
Stacey Barcomb, Washington County Care navigator, said the Alzheimer’s Disease Caregiver Support Initiative provides free assistance for caregivers who need a break and free radio bands for people at risk of wandering off.
“There is no financial requirement — just be in Washington or Warren County,” she said.
Kate Kotfila of Cambridge United Community Center said she found the fair helpful.
“Many of the groups have wonderful programs that either aren’t known or would be helpful to have a satellite location,” she said.
QUEENSBURY — Warren County leaders have agreed to “loan” up to $1 million to SUNY Adirondack so the college can create a new culinary arts center, but some county supervisors are getting concerned about increased funding requests from the college.
The county board’s Finance Committee agreed Tuesday to advance the college money to create the new culinary center, which will be built at an undetermined site in Glens Falls, with the understanding the college repay the funds when it receives a $1 million grant pledged by the state.
SUNY Adirondack President Kristine Duffy told county supervisors late last month the college cannot take on debt, so it needs to find a funding source to get the project going. The Board of Supervisors had the county attorney’s office and treasurer review the proposal, and both offices found the arrangement was feasible.
First Assistant County Attorney Mary Elizabeth Kissane told supervisors the county can’t legally loan money to the college, but can instead call the funding a “sponsorship” that will be paid back. She said the county undertook a similar arrangement with SUNY Adirondack in 2007 for a different project.
County Treasurer Michael Swan said the county would not advance $1 million, but would pay bills for the work as they come in, with the college paying the money back when grant funding comes in.
The full Board of Supervisors will consider the funding request at its meeting Friday. Some supervisors expressed concern about the possibility state funding will fall through, as the county is awaiting state reimbursement for a number of projects that go back several years.
“What if they don’t get the grant?” Lake George Supervisor Dennis Dickinson asked.
“Then we are out $1 million,” Swan responded.
The money will come from the county’s fund balance.
Although supervisors approved the arrangement, some expressed concern about continued requests for money from college leaders.
College leaders asked last week for more operational funding from Warren and Washington counties, a request that is pending. The two counties have contributed nearly $8 million in support for the college’s recent project to put in nursing, science, technology, engineering and math facilities.
Lake Luzerne Supervisor Gene Merlino said he supports the college’s mission.
But, he asked, “When are we going to stop? It’s put a lot on our taxpayers in Warren County.”
With floodwaters nearing knee height, Arlene Estle fled to the upstairs of the Houston house where she’s lived for 50 years and raised four children. It was many hours later before her son-in-law arrived by boat to rescue her.
Her flooded home didn’t fare so well. It could be a year, her contractor warned her, before she can return. Until then, she’ll have to find some place to rent.
“I’m going to be 83,” Estle said one recent morning as her daughter and housekeeper helped try to disinfect her belongings. “This is just a life-changing thing for me to face with making so many decisions. It’s just overwhelming.”
Estle is among the fortunate ones. She has flood insurance and a longtime contractor who can start work soon. Most victims of Harvey have neither. Months will be spent struggling to assess damage, navigate federal assistance and apply for loans. Then, victims will have to compete for contractors who have already put prospective clients on waiting lists.
All told, it could take years for some people to rebuild, if they can do it at all. The same could be true of many victims of Hurricane Irma, which caused its own catastrophic damage in Florida, though less than initially feared.
For anyone who needs to repair or rebuild a home or business, the back-to-back hurricanes coincided with a national shortage of carpenters, electricians, drywall installers and other skilled workers. Many construction workers left the industry after the housing bubble burst a decade ago and haven’t returned.
With fewer younger workers entering the business, the average age of some construction trades has reached well into middle age. There were 255,000 unfilled construction sector jobs recorded in June, according to the National Association of Home Builders.
On top of the worker shortage, homeowners will pay elevated prices for materials, which had already been rising this year.
“The labor shortage is going to make this take longer, but more importantly, it’s going to be more expensive than people think because labor rates are going to go up dramatically,” said John Burns, CEO of John Burns Real Estate Consulting, a housing industry research firm.
Few construction companies outside Texas and Florida are eager or equipped to travel there to handle rebuilding. Most are already busy on work closer to home.
“Why would I take a chance on going to Florida or the Gulf Coast for temporary work, where I might not be able to find housing, when I can find steady employment here and now?” said Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America.
In Texas, Harvey compounded a heavy demand for housing. Texas had been on pace for 30,000 housing starts in 2017. Now, an estimated 200,000 more homes suddenly need to be repaired or rebuilt. Construction jobs were already taking one or two months longer than usual, said Scott Norman of the Texas Association of Builders.
Nearly 70 percent of Texas contractors had trouble finding concrete workers, electricians, cement masons and carpenters, according to a survey of construction firms that the Associated General Contractors of America conducted in July. Texas has long struggled to replenish its aging construction workforce. The average age of a master electrician in Texas is 59. For plumbers, it’s 62.
Stephen McNiel of Creative Property Restoration, a remodeling firm in Houston, received calls from seven flood victims on the day he visited longtime client whose recently restored home had been ruined by Harvey. One came from a woman who had phoned dozens of contractors. All warned her it would be months before they could take on additional work.
“There is a tremendous amount of demand — far more than I’m capable of handling and than everyone I know in my industry is capable of handling,” McNiel said.
McNiel said he could use 50 percent more workers but is struggling to find subcontractors. He said he worries that the shortage of skilled labor is being exacerbated by a perceived suspicion of immigrants under President Donald Trump.
“The reality of my industry is that most of the work gets done by immigrants,” McNiel said.
Simonson noted Trump’s decision to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants a reprieve from deportation to nearly 800,000 immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
“Texas, more than ever, needs people with construction skills from any country,” he said.
Victims of the storms can first expect delays in having their property assessed for damage by insurance adjusters. Then, securing financing will become a challenge. Flood insurance coverage has declined in both Texas and Florida as premiums have risen. Many homeowners will have to go into debt or dig into savings to make repairs — or sell their properties.
For homes that have sat the longest in feet-deep water, drywall and insulation will need to be stripped down to studs and dried. Then everything from wooden flooring to electrical systems and interior doors must be rebuilt.
Mary and Duane Hendricks, retirees who live a few streets from Estle, have decided to give up on their home, now flooded for the second time in two years. They still face a prolonged repair process in hopes of selling it. The Hendrickses have begun removing Sheetrock and flooring to prevent mold.
Two years ago, they tried to live in their home while it was being repaired for flood damage and ended up moving out after three months. This time, they arranged a rental even before the hurricane hit. If they can’t sell, they will just walk away from the home they bought in 1971, where they raised two children and built a sunroom where they taught yoga in retirement.
“We cannot go back,” said Mary Hendricks. “It’s a beautiful home, and we’ve had it for years and we’ve done a lot of work on it. That’s the heartbreaking part.”
In Florida, the magnitude of damage from Irma is still coming into focus. But the widespread flooding means Florida will have to compete with Texas for many of the same materials and laborers. Irma spread its destruction over a vast territory, covering all of Florida and causing major damage to Georgia as well.
“It isn’t just a few counties — it did damage in county after county,” said Douglas Buck of the Florida Home Builders Association. “That’s going to make it more difficult for contractors and builders to go where the problem is and help rebuild communities.”