The days leading up to a massive hurricane are often fraught. Government officials beg those in the path of the storm to evacuate, while locals desperately raid grocery stores for supplies. And everyone watches as the weather slowly gets worse, hoping that their hometowns will make it through to the other side.
And in September 2017 the mood in Florida was one of anticipation as Hurricane Irma, a storm of record-breaking size, approached. But just as everyone in Jacksonville prepared to hunker down, ready for the moment that Irma made landfall, one restaurant manager in the city came up with a controversial plan.
And the manager consequently sent employees at his Pizza Hut a rather unbelievable message just before the storm reached their chain restaurant’s location. As more and more people learned of the boss’ threatening note, though, Pizza Hut’s spokespeople had the final word on the matter.
It turned out, moreover, that Hurricane Irma would be the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, peaking at Category 5 status. On September 6, 2017, it reached land on the island of Barbuda; there, it maintained 185 mph winds for 37 hours. The strongest recorded storm before Irma had only kept up its high-speed gusts for 24 hours.
And although Irma had lost a bit of steam at the time that it approached Florida, it was nevertheless still a strong Category 4 storm. The southwest corner of the Sunshine State was in particular danger, as the hurricane’s projected path headed straight in that direction.
In fact, Florida Governor Rick Scott implored locals to drop everything and leave as the storm rapidly approached. “If you have been ordered to evacuate, you need to leave now,” he said at a news conference on September 9, a day before the storm made landfall in the Florida Keys. “Do not wait. Evacuate. Not tonight, not in an hour. You need to go right now.”
At that time, the state’s Division of Emergency Management predicted that approximately 6.3 million Floridians had received the order to leave their homes. Highways were then flooded with residents rushing to higher ground up north, far away from the hurricane’s path. And with more than six million people on the move, this was predicted to become one of the biggest evacuations in U.S. history.
The southwest Florida evacuation was the biggest of its kind in the state; other residents of Florida cities prepared to leave town just in case, though. For example, although they live a five-hour drive from Miami, people in Jacksonville prepared evacuation routes of their own – just in case they needed to escape Irma’s path.
However, employees at a Jacksonville Pizza Hut may have been angered when their manager sent out a memo about evacuation plans. In short, their boss told them not to make their arrangements too early – or their jobs could be at stake.
The memo read, “Our #1 priority is the safety and security of our team. But we also have a responsibility and commitment to our community to be there when they need us.” It went on to say, “As a general rule of thumb, we close stores 6-12 hours before [the] storm hits. Or [the] night before, if [it’s] a daytime storm.”
The manager then gave his employees strong words of warning. The note continued, “If evacuating, you will have a 24-hour period before storm ‘grace period’ to not be scheduled. You cannot evacuate Friday for a Tuesday event!”
If employees didn’t follow these guidelines, moreover, they would have disciplinary action waiting for them after the storm had subsided. “Failure to show for these shifts, regardless of reason, will be considered a no call/no show and documentation will be issued,” the memo said.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, the note was rather unpopular with those to whom it was directed. Although southwest Florida was at a higher risk for damage and destruction, Jacksonville’s mayor Lenny Curry had encouraged his constituents to evacuate, too, especially those living in mobile homes or low-lying parts of the city.
Then, somehow, a copy of the memo hit Twitter. What’s more, most who read it could not believe that management would punish people for evacuating before a storm. “This is cruel,” said one Twitter user. Another account criticized the chain for asking workers to “risk their lives for min[imum] wage.”
Then, with Pizza Hut’s Jacksonville chain receiving so much heat, the fast-food chain issued its own official statement, showing in the process that it was not in agreement with the franchise manager. Indeed, Pizza Hut gave very differing guidelines for all its stores in the storm’s path.
“We are uncompromising in our commitment to the safety and well-being of our team members,” its pre-hurricane statement read. “All locations in the path of Irma are closed and will remain closed until local authorities deem the area safe.”
The statement went on to address the manager at their Jacksonville location. “We absolutely do not have a policy that dictates when team members can leave or return from a disaster, and the manager who posted this letter did not follow company guidelines,” it said.
Furthermore, Pizza Hut revealed that it had dealt with the boss who had issued the original memo. “We can also confirm that the local franchise operator has addressed this situation with the manager involved,” it said.
And it turned out that the company’s rule reversal came at a good time, as Jacksonville did end up in the storm’s path. Indeed, some areas of the city experienced record levels of flooding. In addition, over 350 people needed rescuing from the waters, according to the city’s mayor.
Now, however, the state of Florida has begun its rebuilding and relief efforts; some estimates predict that Irma’s damage to Florida’s infrastructure and economy could end up costing $300 billion. In short, it was worth it to evacuate and get out of the storm’s way – so perhaps that Pizza Hut manager who had his own plan for his employees has now learned a valuable lesson.