Long before the rain and the wind reached the Country Inn & Suites in this North Carolina port city, couples and families began to pour in.
Some walked German shepherds and Labradors on leashes. Others carried essential supplies to weather the storm: giant jugs of water and Yeti coolers, crates of canned food and Xboxes, oxygen tanks and electric griddles.
Most were locals who lived in mobile homes, low apartments, and one-story homes – structures that might not withstand heavy wind or flood damage when Hurricane Florence finally hit. The massive storm carried hurricane-force winds reaching up to 80 miles from its center.
Not that there was any guarantee they would be safe here.
At check in, staff at this modest four-story hotel in north Wilmington asked everyone to sign a liability waiver form.
Thursday morning, a sheet of paper was slipped under every door.
“Please be advised that Country Inn & Suites… is NOT a designated hurricane shelter,” the note from management said, warning they could lose power and did not have a backup generator.
Jay Patel, the affable owner of the hotel, had considered shutting down ahead of the storm, but a lot of guests had already made reservations.
“Where would all these people go?” he said as he gestured at a middle-aged couple who walked into the breakfast room Thursday evening for a bowl of cereal. “If I shut the building, 75 families would be without shelter.”
Many guests were storm veterans, folks who had hunkered down in hotels before to wait out a hurricane.
As they unpacked, they worried about the homes and neighbors they left behind. But as the hours dragged on, and the gentle breeze and light drizzle picked up, the main concern was how to relieve the tedium.
Strangers randomly thrown together, some chatted to their fellow guests. But most holed up inside their rooms watching weather reports. A few played video games or busied themselves with laundry. Others filled out crosswords, watched YouTube videos or smoked cigarettes outside the reception area.
“I’m anxious to get it over with,” Teresa Parsley, a 64-year-old retired mail carrier, said as she sat in a lounge chair in the lobby clutching a paperback copy of Sandra Brown’s “White Hot.” “You can’t sit in a hotel room for days and days without going crazy.”
Parsley, who was sharing a suite with her son, daughter-in-law, three grandchildren and dog, had come from Hampstead, a small town about 13 miles northeast, fearful the road to her house might wash out.
Her son, Jeff, a 39-year-old construction worker, tried to keep the kids occupied, playing bocce ball on a thin strip of grass outside the hotel lobby and opening up board games like “Sorry!” and “Trouble.”
“I’m bored,” said his 16-year-old daughter, Megan, her painted pink fingernails darting across her cellphone as she exchanged messages with friends who had evacuated to Indiana and New York.
Others were more in the mood for a party.
After dusk, Ariel Graham, 25, strolled into the hotel’s brightly lit breakfast room with her two aunts and grandmother, carrying a box of coconut bars and a portable speaker. She turned on Pandora, which blasted out a sultry R&B song, “Easy,” by Demetria McKinney.
Graham’s aunt Kymberly Johnson, 40, poured a small bottle of wine into a blue goblet and the women settled into a game of spades.
His extended family of 11 had the TV turned on to a local weather channel, but they hardly looked at the screen as they squeezed around a bowl of fresh homemade salsa and snacked on “Mexican hot dogs” and chicken tinga.
“We eat and we drink!” Jose’s wife, Janie Ramos, a 48-year-old teacher, said cheerily. “By the time you notice, the hurricane is gone!”
The Ramos family has lived in the Carolinas for more than 20 years, and this was not the first time they hunkered in a hotel to ride out a storm.
Janie worried about the peacocks, chickens, roosters and three dogs they left behind at their mobile home in Rocky Point, about 13 miles north.
“It’s hard to build a home only to lose it in seconds,” she said. “But I feel like I’ve prayed enough. Everything is in God’s hands.”
At 11 p.m., long after her usual bedtime, Ruby Ramos, 6, paraded through the lobby in pink and green pajamas, carrying a purple “Dare to Dream” Disney princess backpack.
One by one, she arrayed her Barbies neatly on a coffee table, picking them up to smooth their hair, splay their legs and turn them upside down.
Some guests vowed to stay up as long as they could, looking out their windows into the darkness as the rain lashed the building and the wind whipped the trees. But in the end, most slept through the night.
At 6:45 a.m., Marc Colson, 18, stumbled down to the breakfast room and was just about to press the button on the waffle machine when the power went out.
About a dozen people in the dark room stared out the window as the wind howled and the pine trees wobbled frenetically.
A woman headed back to her room, leaving her bagel half ready in the toaster.
In the darkness, Colson fumbled around the breakfast area, grabbing an apple, a lemon roll and pouring milk into a bowl of Raisin Bran.
“We’re in survival mode,” said his 64-year-old grandmother, Dorothy Colson. “Good thing I knew to get some ham and turkey, chips and dips. We’re not going to go hungry.”
At a nearby table, Alejandra Rubio, 40, clutching a paper cup full of coffee, said, “I feel scared.”
Outside, the sky was blank and gray. Tree limbs littered the driveway, and the lower parking lot began to clog with leaves and fill with water.
But it was clear enough for Jeff Parsley to throw on a raincoat and walk his dog, China, around the parking lot.
After all the worry, some guests regretted that they did not just stay put after all.
“I wish I’d never left home,” Kyle Gibson, a 31-year-old film technician, muttered as he leaned over a bowl of cornflakes next to a flashlight. His wife had pleaded with him to leave their home on Carolina Beach, a nearby island under mandatory evacuation.
“Our house was built in the 1930s,” he scoffed. “It’s been through a whole lot more than a Category 1 storm.”
Over the next few hours, the wind picked up power, knocking pine trees on to the grass, pummeling awnings across the parking lot, and ripping the hotel’s U.S. flag off its metal pole.
Eventually, the eye of the hurricane passed right by, narrowly missing Wilmington as it moved southwest.
“So far, so good,” the general manager, Nisarg Patel, said as he walked into the lobby before noon.
The wind still roared and the rain still drizzled. But many of the guests were happily camped out, hunched over cellphones, chatting with loved ones, chuckling over board games.