Hurricane Sandy's impacts hit Manatee travel, business

jsalman@bradenton.comOctober 30, 2012 

MANATEE -- As Hurricane Sandy barreled up the Northeast coast, the ramifications for travelers and business could be evidenced Monday all the way down to sunny Florida.

Many northbound flights across Southwest Florida have been canceled through today, stymieing tourism and leaving business travelers in limbo at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.

"It's going to have a big influence on the whole system for the entire week," SRQ President and CEO Rick Piccolo said. "The airlines have notified people of their changing flight schedule."

More than 7,000 flights, mostly to the Northeast, already have been canceled this week.

That includes service between SRQ to both airports in New York, Washington and Boston -- nearly half of the smaller airport's total schedule Monday. A flight from Atlanta was diverted.

JetBlue already has canceled all Northeast flights today as well, Piccolo said.

Travelers whose stay was extended as a result of the conditions didn't find better luck at Tampa International, where more than 50 arrivals and departures each were canceled Monday.

Many instead were rerouted to the Midwest or booked additional rooms near the airport until it becomes safer to travel later in the week.

"We have had quite a few transient travelers extend their stay," said Marshall Williamson, guest services manager for the Holiday Inn Sarasota Airport. "A lot of people have been talking to our front desk representatives about the weather and their flight cancellations."

Officials don't expect the impact on local tourism to be dire, with most northerners instead coming to town before the storm or postponing their planned trip to Florida a few days.

Permanent cancellations will depend largely on the damage to homes in the affected areas.

"It's kind of like the big snowstorms up in the East, there's a big unknown," said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The people are usually just displaced a short period of time."

Although the storm is trekking toward one of the mostly densely populated areas of the country, it has yet to cause any spikes in gas prices, according to AAA Auto Club South.

In fact, prices at the pump in Florida were still falling Monday as conditions to the north deteriorated.

The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded fuel in Florida on Monday was $3.51, down 12 cents in the past week. The average was a similar $3.50 even in the Bradenton-Sarasota market, according to AAA.

Sandy may still cause some regional increases in areas like Delaware, New York or New Jersey, but weak demand and an oil supply at its highest since 1982 has created a price buffer, AAA spokeswoman Jessica Brady said.

"At this point, it doesn't look like we'll see much of an impact on our area," Brady said.

Florida Power and Light is sending a small army of workers up to the heart of the storm to help out.

More than 560 FPL workers and contractors on 350 trucks were en route Monday to South Carolina, where most will congregate and be assigned to specific areas in the greater Washington, D.C. area Tuesday, FPL spokesman Dave McDermitt said.

That crew count includes 40 FPL workers and 22 trucks from Bradenton and Sarasota. Most of them are expected to work 16 hours a day for the next 14 days.

"This is part of a mutual assistance agreement different utilities have with one another," McDermitt said. "With millions of people without power, help is on the way."

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.

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