Tourism Industry Responds to Storms

from the Alabama Tourism Department

Scores of Alabama tourist attractions and numerous hotels and restaurants lost power following the 23 tornadoes that ravaged the northern half of the state on April 27. With a week, most had reopened, with many restaurants providing free food to victims, first-responders and volunteers. As soon as power was restored to hotels, they provided temporary shelter to thousands whose homes had been damaged or devastated. A few restaurants were blown to bits by the same winds that wiped out entire neighborhoods.

Tourist organizations rushed to assist victims. The Auburn-Opelika Tourism Bureau gathered household items for cross-state college rivals in Tuscaloosa. The Alabama Hospitality Association sought donations. The Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourism Association mounted a drive for necessities to comfort victims in most of its 16-county area. The Alabama Travel Council directed caring members to various volunteer organization.  For many affected by the devastation, it was a roller coaster of emotions that ranged from the initial heartbreak to appreciation as donations arrived. Even President Barack Obama who toured T-town remarked he had never seen such destruction. Gov. Robert Bentley visited most counties during the first week after the storm to supervise recovery efforts and offer a hopeful word to fellow Alabamians in need.

For many of the state industry’s leaders, what began as an interruption of the quarterly meeting of the Alabama Tourism Department advisory board in Montgomery, ended with a rush back home to seek shelter as wave after wave of dangerous winds cut across the state.  Immediately, they began to think of helping the less fortunate, and reopen their attractions and offices as power returned. It was a strange week in which the news of the world seemed to drift by without much meaning. When your world has been blow apart, the NFL Draft, a royal wedding in London and even the death of the mastermind of the greatest terror attack in American history didn’t register with a lot of victims. It is a week later and some measure of order has returned. A few Auburn fans managed to have a few seconds of fame outside of the NBC “Today” show studio in New York yesterday, holding up signs that read: “Toomers for Tuscaloosa” and “War Eagle.” Most tourist attractions in North Alabama are open, with the exception of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, which will reopen today or tomorrow when power is restored. The Whistle Stop Weekend, a food and music festival at the Historic Huntsville Depot, will be held as scheduled Friday and Saturday, as will the Homespun Arts & Crafts Festival in Athens.

Lake Guntersville State Park’s lodge will likely be closed for repairs for several weeks, along with nearby Buck’s Pocket. Fortunately, lodges at DeSoto State Park near Mentone and Joe Wheeler State Park near Rogersville were not damaged. Utility crews and volunteers filled most hotels and motels in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa after the storms. Many North Alabama residents who moved into hotels while power was lost have returned home. A Holiday Inn Express in Tuscaloosa remained closed because of storm damage. As Gov. Bentley said at each stop, “We’ll get through this.”

For travelers or those still seeking shelter, the state tourism department updates individual hotel vacancies at www.alabama.travel.  – Lee Sentell

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