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Amid Hurricane Florence, a makeshift band of strangers finds comfort in Wilmington

Josh Shaffer, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) on

Published in News & Features

WILMINGTON, N.C. -- The last transformer exploded before dawn, plunging the Comfort Suites hotel into total darkness. But when the dozens of guests woke to greet Hurricane Florence and its 90-mph gusts, Beth Bratz was already making coffee.

As general manager, she could have closed the three-story motel on Market Street. But most of her staff lives in flat, low-lying neighborhoods, and she worried they wouldn't last.

So she took them in, along with three news crews and a band of wet stragglers.

"The whole reason I did this is just to be that safe place," said Bratz, 38, mother to an 8-year-old son, sobbing behind the hotel counter as the wind howled. "I know that there are going to be some people that are not going to have a home to go to."

Florence made landfall Friday morning, snapping trees, tearing off shingles and the roof of a house across Market Street. But Bratz passed out raspberry danish in the dark, wishing she could have sheltered more.

"I felt terrible turning some people away," she said. "If somebody were to show up with their grandmother or their mother, I know I couldn't turn them away."

The storm threw strangers together, some sleeping on a sofa in the lobby, walking each other's dogs in hurricane-force winds.

Before the sun rose, volunteer Mitchell Foor had started a generator in the back of his Dodge Ram. Soon, the hotel had a working lamp, a phone charger, an ice machine and coffee.

"I firmly believe in karma," said Foor, who rescued 100 flood-stranded people during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 using the same truck. "For the first 10 to 15 days, I'm just helping people."

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Housekeeper Dee Branch brewed coffee while calling to check on the 88-year-old man she cares for, who refused to leave their house near Porter's Neck. She also got a checkup on Leroy, her dog.

Meanwhile, her husband lay recuperating in the burn unit at UNC Hospitals, victim of an unrelated accident when his lawn mower exploded before the storm. Her face showed no worry as she prepared muffins.

"Definitely won't be no eggs today," she said.

The air smelled of gasoline and dozens of electronic devices beeped in futility. But the Comfort Suites became, for a day, a makeshift hearth for a family of stragglers.

"I can be a b----," said Bratz. "I can be a force to deal with. At the same time, I have a mooshy heart."

(c)2018 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Visit The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) at www.newsobserver.com

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