Weathering the Effects of a Natural Disaster

Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcano eruptions and more. Words we never want to hear, but know all too well, it’s not if but rather when because natural disasters are inevitable.

The U.S. has had its fair share of late — Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, the California wildfires, and just recently Kilauea erupting — and it seems that mother nature doesn’t plan to let up any time soon. In fact, some climate experts predict we are going to experience these events more often. When natural disasters strike, the ripple effects can be endless. And anything that happens to the tourism industry impacts the entire country. In 2017, the travel industry generated $2.4 trillion in economic output and supported 15.6 million American jobs directly and indirectly. That’s 2.7 percent of the GDP that can be attributed to travel and tourism.

If you’re a tourism industry communicator like me, you know the need for weather-related crisis preparedness is more important than ever. With events like earthquakes and tornadoes that don’t provide advance warning, a plan to navigate a crisis effectively should be a critical element of your organization’s overall communication playbook.

Here are a few best practices to successfully manage communication surrounding events of such enormity.

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Learn from the past
While numerous natural disasters have occurred since Hurricane Katrina, the images of New Orleans are still raw and vivid in our minds to this day. It’s the one that so many others are compared to.

Having worked with Visit Houston for several years, Padilla supported the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau’s communication efforts surrounding Hurricane Harvey last summer.

Given the proximity to NOLA, and the magnitude of impact that was expected, we knew H-Town’s response would be compared to that of Katrina. Not knowing how the storm would unfold, we identified clear roles and responsibilities for the GHCVB team. We anticipated loss of power, employees working remotely, and interrupted internet and cell service.

We also had to hope the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response would be swift and organized, unlike that of Katrina.

We were ready, to communicate to stakeholders early and often about Houston’s resilience, big hearts and determination. With planning and careful thought, aided by the community’s incredible support of neighbors, we set out to instill confidence and maintain long-term affinity for the city now known as #HoustonStrong.

Show compassion
We are humans first, communicators second. Human suffering and loss takes precedence above all else.

Once your team is accounted for and out of harm’s way, the tourism body should get to work serving the business community with resources for those affected and keep the media informed. This is particularly important for a civic organization trying to aid its constituents.

Most crises are a 24/7 job for communicators. A natural disaster will veer from this norm. It’s very likely you’ll want to do your part by volunteering to support the relief efforts. After all, it’s your hometown, and there is no greater way to show your love for it than with actions that mean so much more than words.

You can and should contribute. Your perspective and tone from firsthand involvement could be vital to communication messaging that stakeholders need and want to hear. It can also help set the record straight if media are not reporting accurately. While you or your team is walking the talk, your agency partners should be drafting messaging and statements, fielding media requests and monitoring news coverage and social discussions.

Stages of social media
Social media has changed the way we do just about everything. During a natural disaster, it can be a lifeline. For tourism businesses, there are often three key stages.

First, serving as a source of information. The Hawaii Tourism Authority is currently using its social channels to provide continuous updates on the status of the Kilauea volcanic eruption, as did Sonoma County Tourism in the wake of the wildfires last fall.

Social media can then move to serving as a conduit to inform people about how they can help. You know the city’s businesses better than most, so there’s no organization more knowledgeable to gather and share relief information. It could be the difference between whether or not someone has a place to sleep and a meal to eat.

When disaster strikes, the location is put in the spotlight. Often the perception of how the
destination weathers the figurative storm can dictate how quickly it will recover and what the future of tourism might look like. By sharing accounts of heroism and strength, the human stories aren’t forgotten in the barrage of one destruction photo after another. Social media allows the good that comes from the bad to take center stage in a way that wouldn’t have been possible before.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint
The immediate relief effort might be days or weeks and the action is sure to be fastpaced, but the recovery phase often takes years. And there is no doubt tourism will fall off in the immediate short term.

Go in with eyes wide open and let the idea of revitalization fuel your passion to bring your town or state back to better than its former glory. Learn from the community’s experience, then celebrate the rebuilding process with enthusiasm.

Get back to bread and butter communication. Your contact list is a goldmine waiting to tell the world you are ready to welcome visitors once again. And make sure travelers
and clients understand the important role they can play simply by visiting and contributing to the local economy.

Communication over the long haul will be a determining factor in the success of a destination’s resurgence.

Even though you can never fully prepare for any type of natural disaster, having a strategic guide map in place can help minimize the effects from events of incredible magnitude, and be a catalyst to get back to business quickly.

This article originally appeared in O’Dwyer’s, June 2018 – Travel Issue. 

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