National News

Hurricane Michael Shut Down Travel on the Florida Panhandle

Posted October 10, 2018 6:03 p.m. EDT
Updated October 10, 2018 6:06 p.m. EDT

As Hurricane Michael made landfall Wednesday, travel in the Florida panhandle came to a halt.

A shutdown of all commercial air travel in the area was in effect. Tallahassee International Airport; Northwest Florida Beaches Airport in Panama City; Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport, which is co-located with Eglin Air Force Base; and Pensacola International Airport were all closed.

Most airports said that they expected to reopen Thursday morning. In a tweet posted Tuesday, Northwest Florida Beaches Airport reported that the “anticipated startup” of the airport would be Thursday. But the unpredictability of the storm could mean that an air travel shutdown may last even longer.

The airports were encouraging passengers to verify their flight status with the airlines.

Most airlines serving the region’s airports canceled flights until Thursday morning, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines.

The conditions on the ground continued to deteriorate Wednesday, with many local roads being closed. Typical was the Bay County Sheriff’s Office tweet that it had ordered the closure of the Hathaway Bridge in Panama City. Other bridges around the coastal area were also reported closed.

And Wednesday morning, Florida State University in Tallahassee reported that Tallahassee International Airport was already measuring tropical storm force gusts.

At 11:30 a.m. Eastern time the National Weather Service in Tallahassee issued its first-ever “Extreme Wind Warning,” indicating that gusts in excess of 130 mph were expected. A shelter-in-place order was in effect for the region.

On Wednesday afternoon, as the storm’s 155-mph winds lashed Panama City, calls to 10 of that city’s most popular hotels, including the Holiday Inn, Wingate by Wyndham, Country Inn and Suites by Radisson and Hilton Garden Inn went unanswered.

VisitFlorida.com, the Florida tourism industry’s marketing arm, joined with Expedia and activated Expedia’s “emergency accommodations module” to provide real-time accommodations information to those seeking lodgings.

Visit Florida reported that the four official Florida welcome centers, located at major access points into the state, had been closed for the safety of the staff.

Airbnb sent updates by text message to its customers who planned travel to northwest Florida. Ben Breit, a spokesman for Airbnb, said that the company’s “extenuating circumstances policy” was in effect for parts of Florida, which meant refunds might be available and penalties would be waived for cancellations because of airport closures. Airbnb’s “Open Homes” program was activated across the southeast, letting residents forced to evacuate find shelter in the homes of Airbnb hosts free of charge.

VRBO and host company HomeAway were encouraging customers to call their customer service line for information on how to handle affected bookings.

Some cruises with Florida, New Orleans or Galveston, Texas, departures were forced to shift itineraries or delay departures, including sailings operated by Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Carnival.