Initial reporting can leave lasting impressions after a hurricane — and that can be really damaging to a tourism destination.
Keys tourism marketing director Stacey Mitchell told U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio Friday that it took the Keys two years to recover from the perception of widespread damage after Hurricane Irma — and a lot of that perception was the result of reporting from official sources.
Two days after the storm, FEMA said that 25 percent of the homes in the Keys were destroyed.
That news went everywhere.
When the county actually looked at the damage, house by house, the number was a lot lower. Just over 2 percent, or 1,179 out of 55,000 homes.
But the perception of widespread damage throughout the island chain hurt the Keys tourism industry.
Rubio was in the Keys holding a special senate subcommittee hearing about the coastal economy. He said getting information out after a storm is a challenge.
"When an event impacts a part of Florida, I want people to know if it's bad, because it helps us to get the funding we need to recover," he said.
Rubio said he understands everyone, including elected officials, needs tobe careful about getting accurate information from the ground.
"I also don't want to exaggerate it because for a state that's as dependant on tourism as we are, you don't want to be putting out the message that you can't accommodate visitors," he said.
Even a storm that doesn't impact the island chain can hurt tourism. Over Labor Day weekend, with Dorian menacing Florida's east coast, hotel occupancies in the Keys were down 60 percent from the previous year, Mitchell said.
Rubio also heard testimony from Will Benson, a Lower Keys flats guide, about the environmental and socioeconomic challenges facing the recreational fishing industry. Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi provided information about climate change effects already felt in the Keys, and measures the county is taking to adapt.
The record for the hearing will remain open at the Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship until 5 p.m. Oct. 18 for people who want to submit testimony, Rubio said.