Columbus hotels are already selling out of rooms as potential evacuees from Hurricane Irma warily eye the path of the storm and make plans to escape if needed, said Peter Bowden, president and CEO of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We are seeing most of the hotels reporting that they’re already full,” Bowden said. “We’re expecting that they will all be completely booked by the weekend.”
Bowden said that few people had physically arrived in the area, but were instead reserving rooms just in case the time comes to flee their homes.
He said the Convention and Visitors Bureau will be prepared if people begin coming to Columbus or the region in droves.
“We are going to do an availability report. That will be a tool where we can confirm if hotels have any availability, and start directing people to other places if those are filled,” he said.
Residents of Florida reported online that they had booked rooms in Columbus already.
“I live in Orlando. I'm spending the morning getting fully refundable hotel rooms in Columbus, GA, Chattanooga, TN, and Birmingham, AL, for me, my wife, and 4 dogs. I'll pick which one to stay at Thursday,” one user wrote on Reddit. Another booked rooms in Valdosta and Columbus and was waiting for storm updates before deciding where to go.
“All those folks, we try to make them as comfortable as possible and give them a place to feel safe,” Bowden said.
City manager Isaiah Hugley said that the city’s Park and Recreation department has been in contact with the Red Cross and is ready to coordinate relief efforts if needed.
“We have a memorandum of understanding with the American Red Cross. They have identified four possible shelter sites if it becomes necessary to utilize them,” Hugley said.
Hugley added that Columbus has utilized certain areas, which he called “supercenters,” as shelters before. One of those is the Frank D Chester Recreation Center, which was used during Hurricane Katrina. “Basically we’re on standby right now, but our staff have been fully trained and know what to do.”
The National Hurricane Service expects tropical-storm-force winds to arrive in Florida by 8 a.m. Saturday, and to move into Georgia by Sunday. Sustained winds reached nearly 175 mph Wednesday, with gusts increasing to 185 mph or greater.
Hurricane Irma is now the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic, and projections show a reasonably strong likelihood of the storm eventually making landfall near Florida and the east coast. Mandatory evacuations have begun in parts of Florida, and the entire state (as well as Puerto Rico) has been under a state of emergency since Monday.
Tropical Storm Jose formed in Irma’s wake, and is still relatively weak, but that could change, as the hurricane season is still active until roughly the end of November.
Georgia insurance commissioner Ralph Hudgens urged Georgian to begin planning now for the possibility of Hurricane Irma striking Georgia, as some models predict.
Scott Berson: 706-571-8578, @ScottBersonLE