When the house is on fire, you yell!

Just in time for hurricane season, which officially kicks off June 1, the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds today held a webinar/campfire session about disaster planning. The session wasn’t without merit, but as with many ARVC offerings, it was reactive rather than proactive, following the news rather than getting ahead of it. Moreover, the session failed to deliver on a timely promise that it would “consider insurance options,” the lack of which is shaping up as a crucial economic threat to the industry.

Yes, it’s critical for RV parks to have written disaster plans, to get in the habit of educating their guests about the kinds of disasters most common to the area and how to respond to them, and to have a close working relationship with local first-responders—all bases covered by the ARVC panelists. But these and similar bits of advice are limited in scope and imagination, a quiet murmur at the back of a room that badly needs to be shocked awake by a loud klaxon wail. As Susan Motley, ARVC’s education director, mildly observed, “We’re having disasters now in areas where people aren’t used to having them”—not that there’s much outreach to ARVC members about what that means.

Campers know about the growing challenge first-hand. Nearly one in five told The Dyrt for its 2023 camping report that wildfires and other natural disasters had disrupted their camping plans in 2022—triple the rate in 2019. Tornados, hurricanes, atmospheric rivers and record-breaking snowfalls have added to an assault most prominently headlined by wildfires, with their continent-spanning smoke plumes. As reported yesterday in the San Francisco Chronicle, at least five popular state parks in the Sierra are buried in so much snow they won’t be able to open their campgrounds by Memorial Day weekend—and maybe not until well into June, depending on how much damage the melting snows reveal.

An eye-opening snapshot of current environmental risks is provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose National Risk Index maps 18 different threats across the U.S. But as important as knowing where we are is knowing where we’re headed, and in that respect the news isn’t good: as I wrote back in early March, First Street Foundation makes current circumstances seem downright utopian compared to what we can expect over the next 30 years. And First Street thus far has looked at only four of the 18 extreme weather events that FEMA has been mapping.

The striking thing about all these assessments is that when they’re plotted on a map, you quickly realize the last places you’d want to live or camp—or own a campground—are either Florida (and the Gulf Coast in general) or California (and the West Coast in general). And if the maps don’t convince you of that, the insurance melt-down in both states should. Weather-inflicted damage in both states is so severe that both have back-up insurance plans (so-called Fair Access to Insurance Requirements plans, or FAIR) to provide at least some limited coverage when private sector insurers go belly-up or refuse to sell or renew policies, which has been occurring with increasing frequency. Now even the FAIR plans are foundering.

Florida’s, for example, said last month it may have to borrow as much as $750 million to cover claims caused by Hurricane Ian, an expense that comes at an especially inopportune time given today’s high interest rates. In California, meanwhile, the state-run FAIR plan has accumulated a $332 million deficit while it charges premiums that are too low and has limited reinsurance coverage in case of future catastrophic wildfires. Such plans amount to a hidden tax that politicians don’t like to acknowledge, and they’re growing at a rapid clip: Florida’s FAIR plan has tripled the number of its policies since 2019; nationwide, FAIR policies saw a 29% growth in policy numbers from 2018 to 2021.

It goes almost without saying that campgrounds and RV parks are more vulnerable than other businesses to environmental assault. Many are located along coasts, lakes or inland waterways susceptible to flooding, and many more are in heavily wooded areas that make them sitting ducks in a wildfire–but the standard guidelines for reducing fire exposure, such as removing vegetation within 100 to 200 feet of any structure or RV pad, would essentially create a parking lot. Most are located in rural areas, where fire fighters, EMTs and law enforcement are stretched thin and can need lengthy response times. Disaster is not only more likely to strike a campground than, say, a motel or hotel, but when it does, it’s likely to cause more lasting damage.

These are complicated problems to assess and analyze, which may be reason enough for ARVC to shirk from doing so. Nor does it help that ARVC members as a rule are in deep denial about their predicament—if it were otherwise, they’d be clamoring for ARVC to step up to the plate. They’d be insisting that ARVC create a national database of the specific environmental threats faced by each RV park and campground; they’d push for an inventory of which campgrounds have suffered what natural disaster damages and at what cost; and they’d compel ARVC to start the discussion about insurance options that was promised for today.

You can’t effectively address a problem until you’ve defined its nature and dimensions. What came through in today’s webinar, however, was at best a fragmented understanding of a growing threat, and a somewhat wistful reliance on the industry’s long-cherished tradition of campground owners helping each other in times of need. That’s an admirable history, indeed, but one that’s completely inadequate for the size and scale of the storms ahead.

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Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

One thought on “When the house is on fire, you yell!”

  1. I would add this to the list of items mature RV Destination owners choose to ignore. I presented at TACO about developing to satisfy the next generation of RV Owner, with a strong emphasis on metering electricity for ALL guest both long-term (no one argues) and short-term (lot’s of arguing). It is seems obvious to me that if you can’t charge your long-term guest enough to offset the cost of electricity why do you think you can charge the short-term guest enough? I started a lot of discussion.


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