Hurricane Irma: Travel Implications As Storm Heads Towards Cuba & Florida


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The Dominican Republic and the Bahamas are in line for the hurricane which is battering its way across the northern Caribbean

“A potentially catastrophic category 5 hurricane,” is how the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) describes Irma. The storm “will bring life-threatening wind, storm surge, and rainfall hazards”. The storm is said to be the size of France. Dangers include “A life-threatening storm surge and large breaking waves.”

Water levels are predicted to rise by up to 20 feet, with some land areas adjacent to the sea forecast to be under up to 11 feet of water.

In addition, says the NHC, "heavy rains associated with Irma could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides”.

Understandably, travellers already in the region or with imminent plans to visit are concerned. Many have contacted The Independent with their questions, which form the basis for this Q&A.

Q Where is Hurricane Irma heading, and how bad is it?

At 10pm British time on Wednesday, the weather system was just north of Puerto Rico and moving west-north-west at about 15mph. The winds created are much higher than the speed at which the weather system moves. Hurricane-force winds gusting in excess of 200mph extend outward, with very strong gusts 60 miles from the centre.

In line for the hurricane are the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Cuba and Florida.

In Florida, there are fears it could be the worst weather event since Hurricane Andrew a quarter-century ago, which destroyed tens of thousands of houses in south Florida. The Governor, Rick Scott, is taking no chances. He has declared a state of emergency across Florida, which President Trump has elevated to a federal emergency.

More than 1,000 tactical high wheeled trucks are on standby, as are 13 helicopters. Grocery store shelves are being filled with water and other emergency resources.

On Tuesday Governor Scott temporarily abolished all road tolls across the entire state, saying: “Suspending tolls statewide will help people quickly evacuate and make it easier for all Floridians to access important hurricane supplies to ensure they are fully prepared.”

Q I have a trip booked to the region. What are my options?

That depends on the company you are booked with. British Airways is offering a “waiver” to anyone booked to fly to Antigua, St Kitts, Punta Cana, Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos, and Nassau before 10 September. “They can choose to travel to an alternative Caribbean destination or delay the flight to another date before 30 September,” says the airline.

The same offer applies for passengers booked to the four Florida airports BA serves — Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Orlando and Tampa — between 8 and 11 September. They can choose to fly to earlier than originally booked earlier (up to 7 September) or from 12 to 30 September.

Virgin Atlantic says any of its passengers booked to travel to, from or through Antigua, Havana, Orlando and Miami before 12 September can switch to an alternative date or destination travelling on or before 14 October. "Customers currently in any of these resorts also have the option of returning home early," says the airline.

Anyone booked to travel on a US carrier can take advantage of a wide range of travel waivers. Southwest Airlines, for example, is offering passengers booked to fly to airports in Florida, the Bahamas, Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic and San Juan in Puerto Rico up to 11 September can rebook within the next two weeks.

The big package holiday destinations are the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Florida.

Since the Foreign Office has not warned against essential travel to any of the affected regions, there is no legal obligation for tour operators to offer refunds.

But Thomas Cook is offering free amendments or cancellations for travellers booked to the Dominican Republic and Cuba up to and including Sunday 10 September. The firm has sent 18 members of its Special Assistance Team to Cuba and the Dominican Republic "to give our customers already in resort further assistance and support". It has 4,803 clients in Cuba and 1,501 in the Dominican Republic.

The biggest UK holiday company, Thomson, has delayed by 48 hours its flight that day from Gatwick to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, The Manchester departure to the same destination has also been held. And the flight from Gatwick to Varadero was cancelled - though passengers from the Cuban resort are to be brought home as planned.

Thomson added: "We encourage customers due to travel to Dominican Republic, Cuba and Florida in the coming days to check our website regularly for updates."

Q I have bought flights and accommodation separately. How can I claim refunds?

It’s difficult to claim an air fare back if the flight is still operating. The fact you no longer want to go to the region is not the airline’s problem — it merely has a contract to deliver you to the airport you chose.

Conversely, if your planned accommodation is unaffected by the hurricane, the fact that you no longer want to go is your problem; if the supplier of pre-paid accommodation can still deliver the promised stay then the fact you don’t want to go is immaterial.

Q What about travel insurance?

Travel insurers will protect policy holders who inadvertently find themselves in a hurricane-hit area. But they do not cover “disinclination to travel”.

Unless the Foreign Office warns against travel, there is a built-in assumption that the trip will go ahead, and claims for cancellation will not be entertained.


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