Just ahead of hurricane season, which officially kicked off June 1, the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds held a webinar/campfire session for its members—owners of private campgrounds—about disaster planning. The session wasn’t without merit, but as with many ARVC offerings, it was more reactive than proactive, following the news rather than getting ahead of it. Moreover, the session failed to deliver on its 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 to explain what that means.
Natural disasters disrupt camping plans
Campers know about the growing challenge firsthand. 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. Tornadoes, hurricanes, atmospheric rivers and record-breaking snowfalls have added to an assault most prominently headlined by wildfires, with their continent-spanning smoke plumes. At least five popular state parks in the Sierra were buried in so much snow they weren’t able to open their campgrounds by Memorial Day weekend, their usual opening day, and melting snows are still revealing fresh damage throughout the range, including the destruction of three footbridges critical to hikers of the John Muir Trail.
An eye-opening snapshot of current environmental risks is provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 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.
Mapping out disaster planning
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 meltdown in both states should. State Farm and Allstate are both sharply trimming their exposure in California, while Farmers Group has stopped offering new policies in Florida. American International Group is planning to restrict its policies in scores of areas at high risk of floods and wildfires in more than half-a-dozen states, including New York, Delaware, Florida, Colorado, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
The problem of weather-inflicted damage is so severe in Florida and California that both have backup insurance plans (so-called Fair Access to Insurance Requirements plans, or FAIR) to provide at least some limited coverage when the private sector goes belly-up or refuses to sell or renew policies. But now even the FAIR plans are foundering. Florida’s, for example, announced in April that 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 to cover claims 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. Clearly that’s a trend that can’t be sustained long-term.
Campgrounds and RV parks more vulnerable
Meanwhile, 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, essentially would transform many campgrounds into parking lots. Most also are located in rural areas, where firefighters, EMTs and law enforcement are stretched thin and have lengthy response times. Disaster not only is more likely to strike a campground than, say, a motel or hotel, but when it does, it’s likely to cause proportionately more extensive 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—but not delivered—for its webinar.
And that’s just for starters.
You can’t effectively address a problem until you’ve defined its nature and dimensions. What came through in the ARVC 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.
Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park, and of Turning Dirt, a step-by-step guide for finding, buying and operating an RV park and campground. Both books are available through bookstores or at Amazon.com.