Charting AAHOA’s response to the deadly effects of Hurricane Ian
by LAURA LEE BLAKE, ESQ.
Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida on September 28, 2022, as a Category 4 storm. With up to 115 mph winds that pounded portions of Florida’s western coast for more than six hours, along with torrential 20-plus inches of rain that saturated the area, the death toll continues to rise to 127 people (as of time of publication), with billions of dollars in property losses.
This hurricane, Florida’s deadliest since 1935, was described by Governor Ron DeSantis as one of the worst to ever hit Florida. The storm made three landfalls – in Cuba, Florida, and South Carolina – and for AAHOA Members with properties in the path of Hurricane Ian, the impact was devastating.
Repeated refrains of “I have never been so scared in all my life” were heard from numerous AAHOA Members as they recounted their experiences with the slow-moving hurricane, which battered their homes and hotels. Other frequent stories included those of members and their families huddling in interior restrooms for more than four hours with no power as they listened to the storm ripping off their roofs, destroying their hotel signs, and uprooting palm trees in the nearby yards.
We spoke with several AAHOA leaders who reside in Florida, including Florida Regional Director Rahul Patel and Vice Chairman Bharat Patel, and listened as they shared their stories with us. Rahul owns five properties in Sarasota, Florida. He said, debris was flying around during the storm at such a high speed, they became like projectiles.
“We saw broken signs and signs getting torn up and some A/C units getting torn up,” Rahul said. “All the roofs started flying off, including the hotel where we were, and palm trees were snapping from the base. It was a mess – a disaster zone.”
“We consider ourselves fortunate because we thought it was going to be a Category 5 and hit much closer,” Bharat said.
BOOTS ON THE GROUND
AAHOA leaders held a call on the Saturday before Hurricane Ian made landfall, and about 50 hoteliers attended, ensuring everybody was aware of the dangers of the storm and directing them to available resources.
“I’m here to serve and wanted to make sure the word was out,” Bharat said. “How do you share best practices? How do you share with your members, your friends, your neighbors, and your community what’s going on and what’s impacting you? That’s the power of social media and that’s the power of being connected nowadays.”
When the storms died down, both Bharat and Rahul started visiting the local members to make sure they were OK.
“Thankfully, after the storm, every hotel owner and every guest was safe,” Rahul said, “There were no injuries or deaths among the whole network.”
In the days following, volunteers rolled in – bringing supplies, water, and hot Indian meals.
Shortly after the Hurricane, I traveled to Florida to encourage and meet with local members. During the visit, Bharat and Rahul scheduled a Town Hall with U.S. Congressman Byron Donalds (FLR-19) and numerous local AAHOA Members to discuss the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Ian’s ruinous effects on their communities.
“AAHOA is a collective voice,” Rahul said. “Because of AAHOA, we were already in communication with [Florida Attorney General] Ashley Moody’s office, and we were already in touch with the governor’s office.”
AAHOA Lifetime Member Sandip Patel said he took every precaution to protect his property this time after living through Hurricane Charley in 2004.
“Hurricane Charley was a scary experience. I hid in the bathroom for about an hour and 45 minutes,” Sandip said. “After the storm, I came outside and saw broken windows, water was everywhere, and the hotel roof was gone.”
For AAHOA Members who lived through both storms, they uniformly agreed that Hurricane Ian was considerably worse than Charley because of the relentless and high-powered winds that continued from the late afternoon until after midnight.
“We’re Florida strong, and we’re going to build back,” Bharat said, “I’m hoping that we build back better.”
Read the official AAHOA press release here.
Hurricane Ian Town Hall
To help with the hurricane recovery efforts, AAHOA hosted a Town Hall meeting where Congressman Byron Donalds (FL-19) met with AAHOA President & CEO Laura Lee Blake, Vice Chairman Bharat Patel, Florida Regional Director Rahul Patel, and a group of local AAHOA Members. The Town Hall took place at the Riverview Inn in Fort Myers, allowing those in attendance to receive an update on the work Florida AAHOA Members have done to help affected communities and hotel properties. Some efforts included food and water drives, housing displaced families, and supporting power line workers.
AAHOA Members showed up and helped out.
Also in attendance was Jon A. Martin, candidate for Florida State Senator. Martin addressed the hoteliers in the room and shared his vision for Florida’s recovery and bright future.
Florida is prone to hurricanes, and it’s never easy to navigate these difficult situations alone. AAHOA thanks all elected officials and Florida leaders for supporting all Floridians and for their guidance on how AAHOA Members can further help communities recover.
Additionally, WorldClaim and AAHOA Club Blue Partners Gauthier Murphy & Houghtaling were in Florida assisting with relief efforts. GMH, headquartered in Louisiana, provided hoteliers with resources and expert experience navigating hurricane property claims. WorldClaim, headquartered in Atlanta, GA, helped hotels assess property damages, even supplying a helicopter to capture aerial photos of Hurricane Ian disaster.
Desperate times can sometimes call for desperate measures. But AAHOA has built a strong community of hoteliers and industry partners who come together in difficult situations to offer a helping hand and solutions to rebuild the backbone of America’s economy.
Although hurricane season ends this month, you need to remain vigilant and have a plan. Hotel properties in coastline regions are vulnerable. Check out this informational video if you would like additional insight on navigating insurance claims, assessing property damage, and using AAHOA as a resource after a hurricane. Vimal Patel, AAHOA Lifetime Member and QHotels Management CEO, John W. Houghtaling, II from Gauthier Murphy & Houghtaling, LLC, and AAHOA Club Blue Industry Partner, discuss rebuilding after hurricanes.
AAHOA Lifetime Member Sandip Patel purchased his first Florida 12-room mom-and-pop hotel in 2002, after moving to the Sunshine State from San Francisco, CA. Two years later, Hurricane Charley would strike the Punta Gorda area, and Sandip’s hotel property would be in the storm’s path.
“Hurricane Charley was a scary experience. I hid in the bathroom for about one hour and 45 minutes,” Sandip said. “After the storm, I came outside and saw broken windows, water was everywhere, and the hotel roof was gone. Everyone who stayed in my hotel at the time was safe, but the property had a lot of damage.”
Sandip Patel has learned a lot since Hurricane Charley, preparing him to make the most of the time he had left before Hurricane Ian’s landfall in September.
“After I saw in the news that Hurricane Ian was going to make landfall in the Fort Myers area, I boarded up the windows at my hotels, made sure we had plenty of water, and equipped my properties with a backup generator.”
AAHOA knows that recovery efforts take time. It has been on the ground assisting members and reaching out to the appropriate authorities for additional assistance.
“I’ve been an AAHOA Lifetime Member for a little over 10 years. During difficult times like these, I’ve received countless phone calls from AAHOA leadership and members, checking in to ensure I am safe and well, and asking me if I need any help.”
An unforgettable experience
It was an experience Yogendra Singh and his wife, Vandana, say they will never forget.
They stayed at their hotel, the Knights Inn in Punta Gorda, Florida, and they said it was the worst experience of their lives.
The winds and rain pounded on the walls for hours on end, telling AAHOA President & CEO Laura Lee Blake they’ve never been so scared in their entire lives.
The next morning, they had no power and no water, so AAHOA members immediately delivered a generator and supplies. They cleaned everything up and opened their doors to guests.
They didn’t raise their rates, and the hotel remained completely booked in the days and weeks following Hurricane Ian.
They had more than 25 people stopping to request a room on a daily basis.
These AAHOA Members are just one example of what it means to serve the community, even in their own time of need.
On top of that, they helped provide shelter for many different contractors and rebuilding workers, and utility workers while they helped their community rebuild.
Weathering the storm
Six years ago, Dipak Patel purchased his Suncoast Inn hotel in Englewood, Florida. He decided to install impact windows and a new roof designed to weather the storms.
In fact, the salesperson for the windows showed him a demo in which they hammered at the impact windows, but the windows didn’t shatter.
They also installed screws every 8-10” around the window frame to secure it. So, he felt very safe in the hotel as the hurricane was approaching.
His daughters, aged 10 and 14 years old, felt so safe that they wanted to dance in the rain and wind outside.
Even in the worst of the storm, the family felt no fear, and slept through most of it.
In his hotel, Dipak Patel had 10 guests staying in rooms on the top floors. He had each guest sign a Motel 6 waiver/release of liability that he had obtained from a local Motel 6 hotelier.
That way, if the guests opted to stay, Dipak knew that he couldn’t be sued for liability if anything happened. Plus, they were all construction workers, so Dipak knew that he would be helping the local community if immediate repairs needed to be done.
During the night, the winds were so strong that they blew the rain under the doors. Each room had more than six inches of water in it by morning — even in the rooms on the third floor.
Since the hotel is constructed of concrete blocks, the water seeped down the walls and through the ceiling, so there was considerable damage.
Dipak started to read the emails he was receiving from AAHOA and selected one of the Club Blue Partners to assist with his claims.