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When Hurricanes Churn, A Little Hotel Becomes Something More

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Flor Garcia talks to a guest at the Comfort Inn in Ft Myers, Fla. The hotel has become a second home for local residents who find themselves evacuating there during hurricanes.

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 said.

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 said, 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 chuckled. "Playing the music through the storm."

Carruthers says 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/.

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