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Date published 11.09.2017

TOURISTS fled islands in the Caribbean, Florida and parts of South Carolina and Georgia ahead of Hurricane Irma last week. The US Department of Homeland Security reported historic levels of devastation. Two other storms, Katia in the Gulf of Mexico and José following behind Irma in the Atlantic were upgraded to hurricanes before being reduced so far to storms. José, however, still poses a threat. They followed Hurricane Harvey, which caused extensive damage in Texas.

Irma reduced to a level 3 hurricane after passing Cuba but increased again to level 4 as it built up power over the warm waters between Cuba and Florida. The eye of the storm hit the Florida Keys yesterday afternoon (Sunday) South Africa time and was forecast to arrive on the southwest coast of Florida in the early hours of this morning (Monday). Major tourist destinations including Naples, Fort Myers, Sanibel and Captiva islands, St. Petersburg and Tampa were expected to be hardest hit.

Destroyed infrastructure is expected to have long-term negative effects on tourism to the affected areas.

Caribbean islands badly damaged include the Turks & Caicos, Barbuda, Anguilla, Puerto Rico, the British and US Virgin Islands, St. Maarten/Martin, Haiti/the Dominican Republic and Cuba. Key tourism areas of Florida, including Miami, the Florida Keys, Naples and up the Gulf coast were hardest hit. Disney World, Sea World and other theme parks were closed, cruise ships left the area and airline operations were disrupted, with dozens of airports across Florida and the Eastern Caribbean shut down.

Roads out of Florida were gridlocked and airports clogged with people trying to board flights as visitors and residents evacuated ahead of the hurricane hitting with full force yesterday (Sunday).

While volunteers and neighbours helped each other and the emergency services were stretched beyond their limits, there were widespread accusations of price gouging made against some retail stores, hotels and airlines which were taking advantage of the crisis and the demand for food, water, secure accommodation and flights out of the affected areas. Others maintained prices or provided discounts for people fleeing the danger.

The US federal, state and local governments and emergency services were widely praised for effective planning and response to the crisis, which saved many lives, provided support and promised billions of dollars in assistance to rebuild and assist in the aftermath.

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