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Irma destroyed homes. Its evacuations also made strangers feel like family.


Hurricanes and other natural disasters can tear apart neighborhoods and destroy homes. They also have a unique way of uniting people and making friends out of strangers. And that's exactly what happened at a Staybridge Suites in Plantation, Florida. Waiting out Hurricane Irma, a group of hotel employees and their families made guests feel like family, and the lobby, like someone's living room.

Judith August works the front desk at the hotel. Because she was working during the storm, she was allowed to bring her family - a group that extended to kids and grandchildren of all ages. Gathered by a fireplace in the center of the lobby, they sang songs, played board games, and talked the way people did before they had smart phones to stare at for hours on end. And they befriended guests, including Kaysia Earley, an attorney who was staying with her husband and four kids. The group, so large, and so mingled, it was hard to tell who belonged to whom.

"This is great. The kids love it," she said. "They haven't been on their phones. No electronics. Just old school playing."

It's an experience that reminds Earley of Hurricane Andrew. The massive 1992 storm was chaos, but to her, it's a memory associated with family. Her mom was a nurse and Earley stayed home with six siblings while her mother worked through the bulk of the hurricane. "She had no choice but to leave us home alone," she said. "To us, it was fun. Seven children. All my siblings. We weren't scared at all."

Those stories and the vibe they created, helped to soothe young souls in the lobby group, including a precocious four-year-old named Christopher, one of August's grandsons. He spent the evening playing with kids he didn't previously know, sharing games he'd handpicked at the store before being brought to the hotel. He told us, "I'm just a little bit afraid. My heart keeps telling me I don't know why the storm is coming."

But even when the power did go out, there wasn't fear. A spontaneous birthday gathering broke out, and Charmaine Dennis, another hotel employee, commissioned a young woman to entertain the group with what seemed like a highly credible American Idol audition.

"Everybody helps each other," Dennis told us in the lobby, where hours earlier she'd been helping set up breakfast.

The entertainment, helping to pass the time, and providing a welcome distraction from the potential damage waiting at home. The experience, they said, now felt less like an evacuation and more like a family gathering. Asked if this was actually turning a terrible event into something good, August said, "It does. Just knowing we can all be together."

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