Dodging Charley difficult as it turns from predicted path

Florida: Residents and tourists who thought the center of the state was out of harm's way get a dose of high wind and rain.

August 14, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ORLANDO, Fla. - Tropical Storm Bonnie forced the Deeds family, vacationing from Gig Harbor, Wash., to cut short their trip to Naples. So on Wednesday they moved north to Tampa.

Then on Thursday, Hurricane Charley forced them to leave Tampa, and they moved inland to Orlando, where they hoped to catch a flight home.

But they were still there last night, and so was Charley.

"We thought we would be safe here," John Deeds said yesterday, from the Hawthorn Suites Hotel in Orlando as Charley bore down, an unexpected guest in this tourist city. "It seems like Charley is following us."

With Hurricane Charley aimed straight for the Tampa region as late as noon yesterday, Interstate 4, the main road east and away from the Gulf of Mexico's shores, was jammed with motorists heading toward the land of Disney.

Orlando was supposed to be safe ground - far enough inland and off the hurricane's anticipated course to escape its direct fury. By midafternoon, many of Orlando's hotels were reportedly near capacity, while Tampa was a ghost town - its buildings dark and its streets empty.

Then Charley, like a crowd-seeking missile, suddenly turned east, making landfall long before anticipated and putting itself on a direct path for Orlando.

"Hurricanes are not linear thinkers," Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said during an afternoon news conference. "They are fierce weather systems that don't go where a computer model might say they'll go. That's why this was a statewide emergency."

Charley reached Orlando about 8:30 p.m.

At the Hawthorn Suites, residents of the Tampa area and tourists stood under a canopy of the hotel entrance as winds whipped sideways and rain pelted the ground. They held camcorders in one hand while anchoring themselves to door frames or large trash bins with the other.

Then Charley got vicious, blowing people through the doors, into the foyer and knocking picture frames from the lobby walls.

Jacob Akle had run out briefly to pick up food from a nearby Chinese restaurant that defied its competitors and remained open.

He returned from the jammed restaurant about 8:30 after a 45-minute wait for his food - two sandwiches. By then, the storm's power had built significantly and his jeans and black polo shirt, even his fingertips, were dripping.

"Wow - I've never seen anything this powerful," said Akle. Minutes later, the electricity went out.

Everyone at the hotel, it seemed, had been forced to check in because of Charley.

By early evening, officials were advising a state of emergency, and highways and roads were deserted. Police said they would refuse to respond to 911 calls once winds reached 50 miles per hour.

When the storm's course became clear, Charley sent people throughout Orange County into emergency mode, creating impromptu shelters in schools and community centers.

Sherry and Alan Moyer, from Seffner, a suburb of Tampa, had arrived at the Orlando airport a few blocks away to pick up their 18-year-old daughter, Stephanie, who was returning from a five-week trip to Germany.

Upon learning Charley had diverted her plane to the Dominican Republic, they retreated to the hotel, unable to get home.

Ken Haas of Anaheim, Calif., had been vacationing with his family in Tampa, staying in a rented condo. They came to Orlando on Thursday to visit the Disney attractions and were supposed to return to Tampa yesterday, until they realized the area where they were staying had been ordered evacuated.

"What are you going to do? It's Mother Nature," he said. "I've already called the office and told them I'm going to need some extra time off."

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