The combination of inaccurate news reports and hyped hurricane forecasts have hurt some Florida campground operators more than the actual storms that have passed through the area since the middle of August.
“I spent the better part of a month nearly empty because The Weather Channel said the storm was coming here,” said Patrick O’Neill, property manager for Camping on the Gulf, a 220-space campground in Destin, Fla., with eight park model cabins.
O’Neill complained that the Weather Channel referred to Destin by name in connection with Bonnie, when the storm was more than 2,000 miles away from the city, which is located roughly 38 miles west of Panama City.
The storm never made it to Destin, O’Neill said, but the advance reporting by The Weather Channel had effectively cleared out his park beginning in the middle of August.
Destin also was mentioned in Weather Channel reports involving Charley and Frances, but neither of those storms caused any damage in the area either, he said.
“Prior to Ivan, I’d say the storms cost us $50,000 in revenue, just by scaring
people out of here,” said O’Neill, who also complained that a CNN reporter exaggerated reports involving the size of waves in the city.
Tom Tibbitts of Ocean Grove RV Resort in St. Augustine Beach doesn’t blame The Weather Channel for his losses. But he concedes he’s lost respect for the station.
“I always thought The Weather Channel was a public service channel, but it’s not,” he said. “It’s a commercial channel. They’re selling sensationalism. Before Frances even passed north of here, they were hyping Ivan, and it was 3,000 miles away.”
While the intensive publicity surrounding the storms could leave many viewers with the impression that campgrounds in Florida and other areas across the Southeast had shut down, private campgrounds were actually among the first businesses in the region to bounce back after the storms.
“The thing about campgrounds is it doesn’t take them very long to get back together again,” said KOA’s Gast. “It may look like a mess (after a storm) with fallen branches, but you grab a crew, and start one row at a time and get 15 to 20 sites open and you’re back in business.”
Some campgrounds, in fact, were actually seeing more business in late August and early September than they normally would because of the evacuations and related efforts by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) to temporarily house evacuees in trailers in campgrounds, said Bobby Cornwell, interim president of the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (Florida ARVC).
“We have numerous parks where FEMA has come in and placed trailers where there are available sites,” he said, adding that the feedback so far from campground owners is positive because it’s filling up empty sites.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for park owners in Florida and across the Southeast was simply communicating the message that they survived the storms and were open for business.
“It’s going to take a little education,” said Cornwell, adding that some snowbirds have already called Florida campgrounds wondering if they should cancel their reservations. “Hopefully, (the storms and related publicity) will not have any longer term effects.”