For coastal Georgia, climate change can complicate vacations – Savannah Morning News

Climate change cares little about convenience. 
Or your summer vacations. 
That’s why weather-related events fueled by a warming planet are impacting ― and in some cases, imperiling ― leisure travelers like never before. 
Visitors to Hawaii’s resort-rich island of Maui found that out late last summer when nature threw a climatological curveball. 
Isolated in the warm Pacific Ocean nearly 3,000 miles west of Mexico, Maui and the rest of Hawaii’s islands are accustomed to severe tropical weather. 
Last August, Hurricane Dora missed Hawaii by hundreds of miles as it passed to the south, but remnants of its powerful winds still buffeted Maui and fanned flames that torched more than 2,000 acres turned to tinder in extremely dry weather. 
The fire claimed 115 lives and destroyed 2,200 buildings. 
It also triggered thousands of cancellations from travelers who had booked vacations on the island in the following weeks and months. 
A sudden change in vacation plans pales in comparison to the loss of life, of course. But the tragic Lahaina fire and confluence of phenomenon behind it are reminders that nature ― infused with energy by climate change ― is becoming increasingly unpredictable. 
That means booking a trip to Savannah and the South Carolina Lowcountry, where hurricane season coincides with the height of summer tourist traffic, is not quite as safe a bet as it used to be, experts say. 
“Climate change significantly impacts the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, including hurricanes,” explained Alejandro Del Valle, a Georgia State University economics professor who studies the financial impact of severe weather. “Vacationing in areas prone to such events, like the Georgia coast during hurricane season, carries increased financial risks.” 
This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is forecasting an estimated 17 to 25 named Atlantic storms (with winds of at least 39 mph), eight to 13 hurricanes (74 to 110 mph) and four to seven major hurricanes (at least 111 mph).  
The Savannah area has not experienced a direct blow from a hurricane since 1979, when David packed 90-mph winds that toppled trees, took down power lines and left 75,000 customers of what was then known as Savannah Electric in the dark. But even a near miss, such as Hurricane Matthew in 2016, can cause significant storm surge and property damage, and claim lives.
Still, there have been many more misses than hits. 
The possibility of a storm can leave potential travelers to coastal areas such Savannah and Hilton Head Island in a vacation no man’s land.  
“For example, the Weather Channel spends five days harping on the possibility of a hurricane hitting our area,” explained Joseph Marinelli, president and CEO of Visit Savannah. “After repeatedly seeing the threat on TV, the consumer decides to cancel or ‘no-show’ because of the threat or concern. Then the ‘hurricane’ instead turns into a minor rain event.” 
The traveler asks for a refund but the host refuses because the room can’t be resold. 
“Yeah, it’s a tough one,” Marinelli said of the situation. 
In fact, climate change could make that kind of dilemma even more common. 
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While heightened storm activity increases the odds of a hurricane hitting a particular area, a recent trend in tropical cyclones has added what climate experts consider a frightening new wrinkle. 
Oceans absorb most of the heat trapped in the atmosphere by pollution released when fossil fuels are burned for energy or transportation. 
The trend led to record-high Atlantic temperatures in 2023, and this year’s readings are pointing to another all-time record. 
That’s because warmer oceans pump more energy into storms, causing them to intensify. In some cases, the speed of those power surges is alarming experts.  
In August of last year, Hurricane Idalia’s sustained winds strengthened by 55 mph in a 24-hour period as it moved through the Gulf of Mexico before making landfall in Florida and eventually causing damage when as its remnants passed over coastal Georgia.  
Nearly one-third of the more than three-dozen named storms in the Atlantic and Pacific basins combined last year experienced “rapid intensification” when their wind speeds increased by at least 35 mph in 24 hours.  
The trend dilutes forecasters’ ability to accurately predict how strong storms will be when they make landfall.   
“For travelers, the inability to foresee and plan for extreme weather events, such as rapidly intensifying hurricanes, can result in unexpected health hazards and disrupted travel plans,” Del Valle said. “This unpredictability will likely force travelers to consider where to travel more carefully, plan in case of an emergency and consider purchasing travel insurance.” 
Insurance offers financial insulation from the whims of nature. The price for a typical policy is generally 5% to 6% of the trip’s total cost, although a traveler’s age can factor into the total. 
“Travel insurance is important for anyone planning a summer or fall vacation,” said Montrae Waiters, a spokeswoman for AAA Georgia. “If severe weather interferes with your travel plans, there are travel insurance policies that reimburse you for covered losses associated with flight delays and cancellations. They can also provide partial or full reimbursement of non-refundable deposits on hotels, cruises, and excursions.” 
However, climate change will likely have an outsized impact on trip coverage, just as it has on home coverage in areas battered by past storms and prone to being hit again, Del Valle predicted. 
“Travel insurance for high-risk areas due to extreme weather events is becoming increasingly unaffordable,” he said. “As climate change intensifies, insurers adjust their risk assessments and pricing models, leading to higher premiums for destinations prone to extreme weather.” 
Some insurers may bale from high-risk markets entirely, Del Valle added. 
But climate change also is affecting travel in unexpected places. 
Late last summer, 70,000 people attending the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert were stranded by, of all things, severe flooding from an unexpected deluge.  
Also last summer, travelers to New York City experienced what was classified as the worst air quality in the world when smoke from Canadian wildfires hundreds of miles away shrouded the area and obscured the iconic skyline. 
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In the end, it’s up to travelers to protect themselves against weather-related events, said Del Valle. 
“First, familiarize yourself with the area you are visiting and the risks it faces from natural disasters,” he suggested. “And choose travel dates outside known high-risk seasons, such as avoiding the hurricane season for coastal destinations.” 
He also recommended making refundable bookings, being flexible with travel dates and, of course, buying insurance, he added. 
“But it’s crucial to read the contract carefully to understand what is covered and when,” he cautioned. “Purchase the policy ahead of your trip (because) buying insurance after a storm has been named will not cover that event.” 
When reaching the destination, come up with an emergency plan, and make sure to have essential supplies and medications on hand. 
And finally, now more than ever, expect the unexpected. 
John Deem covers climate change and the environment in coastal Georgia. He can be reached at 912-652-0213.