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Traffic is bumper to bumper as people evacuate Southern Florida

While they’re “hoping for the best and preparing for the worst,” RV dealers in Florida are bracing for the weekend landfall of Hurricane Irma, a storm that some are saying would likely be of historic proportions in terms of property damage across most of the Florida peninsula as well as portions of Georgia and the Carolinas.

When the eye of storm reaches Florida sometime Sunday (Sept. 10) morning, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) projects it as a Category 4 hurricane, saying it will have maximum sustained winds near 150 mph with higher gusts. Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 70 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 185 miles. The storm also has the potential for life-threatening waves and storm surges of several feet along the coastlines as well as rainfall that could reach 20 inches in isolated areas.

Officials are predicting Irma will likely cause far greater damage than Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm that ravaged Florida in 1992, according to the National Weather Service. But, whereas Andrew traveled across the southern tip of Florida from east to west, Irma is projected to strike Florida at its southern tip and then proceed north through the middle of the state.

Residents and vacationers in the state, especially the southern coastal regions, are heeding the warnings. On Thursday, 650,000 people in Miami-Dade County were ordered to evacuate while airports have announced they will be closing at various times Saturday. And media reports indicate highways are filled with people fleeing the southern part of the state, heading north and inland to campgrounds, racecar tracks and dozens of other facilities accepting evacuees.

Loren Baidas

Wixom, Mich.-based General RV Center was dealing Friday morning with contingency plans for two of its 12 stores — the 150-employee Tampa store located in Dover, and the 100-staffer Jacksonville outlet in Orange Park. “We’re looking at evacuation plans for employees, and we’re looking at making sure that everything on the lots is secured and that buildings are secure. We’re as well prepared for what’s about to happen as possible with the way the hurricane is turning, or isn’t turning, at this point,” General RV President Loren Baidas told RVBUSINESS.com.

All in all, he agreed, it’s about as moment-to-moment as it can be. “We’re staying on top of it every hour,” added Baidas. “We’re communicating with our employees via email and text. We’ve sent a number of them home to take care of their families and if they feel that they need to evacuate then they can do that. And, at some point, we will be closing the store for a day or two based on when the hurricane arrives. I sincerely hope this thing dissipates a little bit before it hits Florida. It’s going to be one that we’re going to remember for a lifetime.”

Joe Jackson, sales manager at North Trail RV in Fort Myers, told RVBUSINESS.com the dealership is “making some preparations, but there’s not a whole lot we can do. We put the slides in and the stabilizer jacks down. And then we kind of park them close together in the middle — not too close, but just far enough away it won’t do any damage. Kind of like circle the wagons; and then we’re going to drink a lot of Bud Light.”

One factor that should help North Trail RV, Jackson noted, is it’s a relatively new facility built to the most recent hurricane-proof specifications. The 70,000-square-foot parts and service building was constructed in 2015 and the 25,000-square-foot state-of-the-art sales center is nearly finished. Both facilities are built to withstand 200-mph winds.

“So we’re going to put a lot of the coaches inside both buildings. We have 40 bays that are 50- to 60-foot deep and 20 feet wide. We’ll probably bring in the Airstreams. They’re all-aluminum, you know, so we don’t want them outside to get banged up. You know, I think we can get probably 40 or 50 Airstream trailers in there along with some of our high-end Newmar King Aires and Essex motorhomes. And we’re going to get 10 or 12 Class B vans in the sales center, too. Everything should be hurricane-rated, so we’ll see.”

Jackson noted that in the past few years North Trail had relocated from Fort Lauderdale, which is expected to be more severely affected. “We may be just getting the outskirts of it anyway. But we’re not really going to know about that until probably tonight. We’ll have everything done by then and be as ready as we can be. So, really, it’s just hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”

Ron Fleming

Ron Fleming, newly named vice president and national general manager of Tampa-based Lazydays RV, said the dealership would close at 5 p.m. today and remain closed through Monday, at which time a management task force will visit the complex for a damage assessment.

“Right now our plan is to be closed for the three days and we’ll reopen or reopen as normal on Tuesday morning, but we don’t want 500 employees to show up on Tuesday and find out we’ve got blocked driveways or dangerous conditions like electrical lines down or any that sort of thing,” Fleming told RVBUSINESS.com.

“The path has changed since we last talked (Wednesday),” he continued. “When we talked last we were looking at more of an East Coast trajectory, maybe even offshore. So it looked like we would have maybe some heavy winds at about 30 miles an hour. But now that the path is moved up into the center of the state, the whole state now is looking at possible hurricane winds.

“So what started out a few days ago as looking like just ‘batten down the hatches and you’re going to have a windy day,’ it’s looking more now like it’s going to be hurricane conditions.”

Between new and used units for sale and customer-owned units waiting for service, Lazydays has about 1,500 units on site. Fleming pointed out that they will secure as many of those as they can inside service bays, while others have already been relocated as far away as possible from the property’s many trees.

“We’ll do the best we can. We’ve probably moved 75% of our inventory at this point to either the middle of an aisle or a driveway or out in the parking lot and are stacking them really tight, almost like a holding yard, and we’re continuing to do that today. That’s our main thing, to try to get everything bunched up. That helps us from a wind barrier standpoint, and then also to get them out from underneath the trees. We have a lot of big oak trees and they’re always the ones that are at risk,” Fleming said, adding the dealership’s adjoining campground resort will be full by the end of today with evacuees from the southern part of the state.

In fact, Fleming said Lazydays could potentially serve a role in a relief effort in the aftermath of the storm, as it is a large facility with generator power. “We are a big operation. We do have a lot of inventory and a lot of capacity and a lot of resources, so we want to make sure that we’re also available for the millions of folks who are going to be affected by this thing in Florida.

“We’ll evaluate after the storm Monday,” he concluded. “We do have generator backup that runs the whole dealership, so we’ll at least be able to get in and evaluate and look at things and determine how we can regroup and get back to work on Tuesday. Plus, our employees obviously will have issues they’ve got to deal with; we’re certainly going to be understanding of that. So it might be a few days after the storm before we you know kind of get back to full speed. But we’ll be in as fast and as safely as we can.