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When Hurricanes Churn, A Little Hotel Becomes Something More

Sep 12, 2017
Originally published on September 13, 2017 10:38 am

It's hot and dim inside this Comfort Inn just off the interstate in Fort Myers, Fla. The power has been off for two days, ever since the heart of Hurricane Irma passed right over the city.

But Dorothea Brown seems right at ease as she flips through a newspaper in the lobby.

In fact, she says the hotel is her "second home when we have to evacuate." Brown lives at a mobile home and RV park right along the Orange River, so evacuations are a part of life. She and her family and her neighbors have a routine.

"Every time there's a storm, we come here," she says.

On Monday evening, there were still a handful of residents who rode out the storm and couldn't yet make it home. The hotel staff, who had stayed the entire weekend, were housing and feeding them.

From her perch on the couch, Brown tries to remember the first time she took shelter there. "Well, there was Wilma. Before that, what was that, a man's name, that was real bad, she says, referring to Hurricane Charley in 2004. Irma was a rough hit, she says, but "I have a home to go back to, thank God." She couldn't go back yet, though — some streets were still too flooded.

Brown is 91 years old. "I keep going!" she says. "It's the Florida sunshine and the exercise and good friends, good neighbors."

A good refuge doesn't hurt, either.

"We love to come here," Brown says, speaking for herself, her family and her neighbors. "They are very good in trying to assist us the most they can."

She's not kidding. On Monday evening, when the power was out and the phone lines weren't working, 16-year-old Josselin Calderon was standing behind the front desk in uniform, using her smartphone to try to check reservations.

There was a grill set up outside with chicken and tacos on the sideboard. Staff members also brought food for the stranded guests.

"We got hungry," general manager Flor Garcia said, laughing with other staffers. "We just went to our houses to get whatever we had in them, meat or anything, and we already had the grill here."

Employees brought their families with them to ride out the storm, and they stayed for the entire weekend. Sebastian Bazan, 12, was there because his mom, Cintia Hermida, works at the hotel. He said the storm was scary — he even cried at one point, worried for his aunt in Naples.

In the hotel's breakfast room, right off the lobby, Cheryl Schoolman, Sheryl Carruthers and Stephen Kappes expressed uniform awe for the hotel's hurricane amenities.

"They always made sure we had coffee — and good coffee! That's a miracle," Schoolman said.

"It was like staying with family, it really was," Kappes said, "with the kids and everybody. "

The three were traveling with a larger group of friends. They brought instruments, and when the winds were highest, they were having a blast.

"We were up in the room having a jam session with the mandolin and the guitar. Like the Titanic — we were singing and playing the music — that's what one of the clerks said," Kappes said with a chuckle. "Playing the music through the storm."

Carruthers said that — just like Dorothea Brown — she knows exactly where she'll be the next time a hurricane hits.

"You know, it looks small, it doesn't look real fabulous," Schoolman said. "But what counted was all the care and family atmosphere."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Fort Myers is one of the cities in Florida that got a direct hit from Irma. There, living through the storm was as close to routine as a hurricane can be. NPR's Camila Domonoske spent time at a little hotel just off the interstate that becomes something more during hurricane season.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: The Comfort Inn behind the Cracker Barrel isn't advertised as a hurricane shelter, but Dorothea Brown knows it's the place to be when a storm comes through.

DOROTHEA BROWN: It's our second home when we have to evacuate (laughter).

DOMONOSKE: Evacuations are a part of life in Florida, especially when you live in a mobile home and RV park as Brown does. She's been taking refuge at this hotel for years. She tries to remember the first time.

BROWN: Well, there was Wilma. Before that was that - what was it? - a man's name that was real bad.

DOMONOSKE: That would be Hurricane Charley in 2004. Brown is 91 years old.

BROWN: I keep going (laughter). Yeah. Yeah, it's the Florida sunshine and the exercise and good friends, good neighbors.

DOMONOSKE: And a good refuge doesn't hurt.

BROWN: Yeah, we love to come here. And they are very good in trying to assist us the most they can. I can recommend this little motel (laughter).

DOMONOSKE: Here's why. The staff members brought their families and stayed for the entire storm. They kept serving fresh food and hot coffee. On Monday night, they set up a grill outside, barbecued chicken and shared it with stranded guests. Flor Garcia is the hotel's general manager.

FLOR GARCIA: Yeah, we got hungry. We just went to our houses to get whatever we had in them, meat or anything. So we just used that grill. We got a couple food and that's it.

DOMONOSKE: In the lobby, Dorothea Brown had some good news.

BROWN: I have a home to go home to. Thank God.

DOMONOSKE: But she'll be back at her second home to ride out the next storm. Camila Domonoske, NPR News, Fort Myers.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSHUA REDMAN AND THE BAD PLUS' "AS THIS MOMENT SLIPS AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.