Frances is not a thrill for tourists in Florida

Trapped: Most visitors came seeking fun, but the hurricane clouds their enjoyment in the Sunshine State.

Hurricane Frances

September 05, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ORLANDO, Fla. - Some sat next to sandbags along the outside wall of the school, having a last smoke before the rain forced them inside.

Others wrapped themselves in well-worn blankets and lay on blue wrestling mats on the hard cafeteria floor.

Tourists from Vancouver laughed and shared tuna sandwiches with Disney workers who live a few miles away.

Everyone at Odyssey Middle School seemed to agree yesterday that Hurricane Frances should hurry up and come so that they wouldn't have to pass more idle hours.

"I hope it just gets bad now so I can go home tomorrow," said Theresa Reed, a Fredericksburg, Va., resident who spent the week visiting theme parks with eight family members.

Hurricane Frances slowed to a near halt yesterday, leaving evacuees and travelers stuck in hotels and shelters here, wondering whether they would get home soon.

By midday, when rain squalls and damaging winds arrived in central Florida, 55,000 people occupied 281 shelters across the state, and thousands more jammed hotels.

Most people in shelters and hotels here said they had evacuated from coastal areas or from flood-prone areas around Orlando.

But plenty were vacationers who had visited the city's theme parks and tried, unsuccessfully, to fly out before Frances came through.

Reed's family was camped at Odyssey yesterday along with 200 others who had fled to the Red Cross shelter. Reed said she tried to move up their Friday afternoon flight to get out before the airport closed but was unsuccessful. She had been volunteering in the shelter kitchen to pass time.

"I so want to be home," she said.

In the same school, Vancouver resident Paul Chow and his wife swapped jokes and disaster stories with two Florida residents.

The Chows had been touring Florida for two weeks and were scheduled to fly out Friday, but their flight was canceled. They spent Thursday night sleeping on gym mats.

"We don't have anywhere else to go," Chow said. "We've spent most of our money. ... But these people at the shelter, they're all friendly."

In a Sheraton Hotel near the airport, a German father and daughter, Leopold and Jennifer Hansen, had coffee at the hotel bar, watching Frances spin on the television news. The Hansens had spent the week touring Florida.

They drove eight hours from Miami on Thursday, only to find all flights to Europe full before the airport closed. They said they expected to be in the hotel at least until tomorrow.

"I never thought we would be in such a situation," Jennifer Hansen said.

"We see these storms on the TV in Germany and think, `Oh, poor people,' but ... "

Several families at the Sheraton had driven from Vero Beach, where the eye of the hurricane was expected to make landfall.

"These were the only rooms we could find in the state," said Deborah Kappel, who came to the Sheraton on Thursday with her husband, their three kids, a nanny, a poodle, a St. Bernard puppy, five cats and 12 turtles.

After summering in Vermont, the family had returned to Vero Beach so the children could begin school.

When asked if she wished they had stayed north, Kappel said, "Oh, heck yeah."

The Kappels walked their dogs in the parking lot but worried that they would be unable to do so once dark bands of storm clouds overshadowed the sun that had shone most of the morning.

"We may be here a long time together," Deborah Kappel said

The halls of the Sheraton, one of scores of Orlando hotels that reported full houses yesterday, were chaotic, with dogs scurrying about and families speaking excitedly in multiple languages.

Most restaurants and stores closed Friday night, with no plans to reopen until Frances had passed. Hotel guests had few places to go.

Beth Clemenson had just moved into her Vero Beach house from Los Angeles when Frances came calling.

"I didn't need to move down here, except I could afford a house near the ocean," she said, eating fries in the Sheraton restaurant. "It was a dream, so this is a pretty bitter pill."

Some people in shelters had come from only a few blocks away.

"I figured I better get getting while the getting was good," said Orlando retiree Leonard Colbert, who ate canned ham while sitting on his folding chair in another city middle school.

"I moved here for the weather," said Colbert with a rueful laugh.

"If I'd known this was coming, I wouldn't be here now," said Sylvester Griffin, Colbert's buddy, who recently moved from Rochester, N.Y.

Colbert said the two were passing time watching the people going by and staring out the window at the coming storm.

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