photo by Josh Hallett
As a Floridian, I can tell you that the best place to be when a hurricane is headed your way is someplace else. Somehow the folks who run the Disney Cruise Line missed that memo, even though they are based in Celebration, Florida, just outside the gates of Walt Disney World.
Like all the other major cruise lines, Disney carefully routed its ships and passengers far away from the historic storm that raked the northwestern Bahamas from early Sunday into this morning. However, unlike at least one of its major competitors, Disney chose to leave a group of employees to shelter in place on a low-lying spit of land directly in the path of the Hurricane Dorian, rather than take advantage of the storm’s well-forecast and leisurely path to move the workers out of harm’s way.
It was a decision as inexplicable as it was foolhardy. Fortunately, it did not turn out to be tragic, at least as far as was known Monday night when I wrote this post. By that time Dorian had been pummeling the Abacos and Grand Bahama for a full 24 hours, with hours yet to go before it was expected to turn north and west toward the southeast U.S. coastline.
Disney was the first cruise line to establish a “private island” for the benefit of its patrons. It calls the 1,000-acre spit of land, which it first leased for 99 years from the Bahamian government and reportedly later acquired outright, Castaway Cay. The island sits between Great Abaco and Grand Bahama, a few dozen miles southwest of where Dorian first made landfall as a Category 5 storm with 185-mile-an-hour sustained winds and gusts to 220 mph. It was the strongest storm on record in that region and one of the strongest ever seen in the Atlantic basin.
Typical of the low-lying Bahamas, the island’s airport runway is five feet above sea level. Dorian came ashore on the nearby Abaco Islands with a storm surge nearly five times that high.
Bahamian officials had spent days pleading with local residents to move out of the storm’s path. Many did, and many of those who did not – or could not, for lack of means – found themselves victims of the storm. By last night at least five deaths had been reported, along with widespread destruction. The images and stories that will emerge in the days to come are sure to be heartbreaking.
Carnival Cruise Lines, which runs its own facility a little farther from Dorian’s path at CocoCay, evacuated its staff last week. I never would have dreamed that Disney would consider doing otherwise. But as the storm raged on Sunday night, a distraught relative of one Disney worker took to Twitter with the story – and received a response that I find almost as absurd as the original decision.
“My sister is stuck in the middle of a Cat 5 hurricane,” Meg Green wrote on Twitter in a post – since deleted – that the Miami Herald reported. “We were told they would evacuate and they didn’t. Left them behind!! Why??”
The response from Kim Prunty, a Disney public relations vice president, was patronizing and tone deaf, something along the lines of “don’t worry your purdy head, little lady.” What Prunty actually wrote, according to the Herald, was: “I understand your concern, as they are our co-workers. Castaway is south of the more significant weather. [Disney Cruise Lines] is in regular contact with the island leadership and all are safe. Forecast calls for tropical storm force winds, which is what is there now. There are extensive measures in place to keep the crew safe. A shelter on the island houses all crew and is stocked with a plentiful supply of food and water.” The company later said it used a satellite phone to stay in touch with its staff on the island hourly.
Let’s count the myriad ways in which the company’s decision-making was, to put it in the politest possible terms, flawed.
1) Hurricane strength is very difficult to predict. Dorian was expected to be Category 4 storm when it reached the Bahamas, with winds around 140 mph, which is still a very intense hurricane. But it added the equivalent of an additional full-fledged tropical storm when it arrived. About year ago, Hurricane Michael went from a sub-hurricane tropical storm to a devastating Category 5 hurricane in just two days. It nearly wiped the Florida Gulf Coast community of Mexico Beach off the map.
2) Hurricane paths are almost as difficult to predict as hurricane intensities, which is why forecasters use a well-known “cone of uncertainty” updated at least every six hours. A shift of a few miles can make a big difference in the impact at any particular place, even outside that forecast cone. Disney’s island was much too close to the predicted path of the storm for comfort.
3) Keeping employees safe is more than a matter of providing them with food, water and shelter. Any sort of medical emergency can arise at any time. Suppose an employee were to be taken ill, or was injured in an accident while the storm was in progress. Any sort of medevac would have been impossible. An improbable scenario? Maybe. An avoidable one? Obviously.
4) The emotional well-being of employees and their families is important, too. Meg Green should not have needed to worry about her sister. Her sister should have been safely ensconced in a comfortable hotel room or other accommodation far from the storm, either elsewhere in the Bahamas or back on the mainland. Disney employees in Celebration no doubt got plenty of messages from friends and loved ones across the country during the storm advising them to “stay safe.” Many of us in Florida get those messages whenever there is a hurricane nearby. It’s important to put people’s minds at ease even when there is nothing to worry about, let alone when – as was the case with Dorian – there was a great deal to worry about.
5) It is lovely that Ms. Prunty is concerned for the welfare of her Disney co-workers. I have no reason to doubt that she is. But such concern not quite the same thing as a sister worrying for the life and safety of her sibling. Maybe next time Ms. Prunty can avoid giving the impression that she sees the two situations as equal.
6) Hourly check-ins by satellite phone in the midst of a major hurricane are a pacifier, not a safety measure. In the event of an emergency, there would have been very little Disney executives could do for their castaway employees, even if they knew it was happening.
Dealing with weather threats is an important yet routine part of business management. At my firm, we have a manager in charge of every office (we call them “station chiefs” in homage to the CIA) who is empowered to close the office, dismiss staff early or take any other measure they deem appropriate to look after the safety and comfort of our people. We have to deal with hurricanes in Florida, blizzards and ice storms in Connecticut, tornadoes in Texas and all of the above in Atlanta. I have a strict policy to never second-guess a station chief’s decision to send or keep staff home, change business travel plans, or take any other protective action, even if I might have come to a different conclusion. We may lose some productivity or suffer some inconvenience; that is a manageable price to pay. It is known as the course of least regret. It is always the route to choose when dealing with a genuine threat to life and limb.
There was plenty of time for Disney to charter a yacht, if necessary (ironic yet understandable for a cruise line), to move its people before literally turning them into castaways on its corporate cay. Its failure to do so was an egregious lapse in judgment, but fortunately, as I write this, not a tragic one. That’s actually a good result. Next time Disney should remember this lesson and come up with a different answer.