|By Randy Diamond, Tampa Tribune, Fla.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Aug. 13, 2004 - TAMPA, Fla. -- Hotels along Pinellas County beaches closed Thursday, telling guests they must leave in preparation for Hurricane Charley's assault, and downtown Tampa hotels said they planned to do the same early today.
Thousands of hotel guests are affected.
Hotels in other low-lying areas in the Tampa Bay area said they were waiting for orders from emergency management officials on whether they could stay open.
The hotel closings began to have a domino effect.
Tourists told to leave shuttered hotels and residents in areas vulnerable to the storm sought shelter in lodging establishments throughout Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Many reported being booked full by Thursday afternoon.
Even hotels in Lakeland and Orlando, 35 miles and 85 miles respectively from Tampa, reported Thursday that they were filling with evacuees. They were streaming in not only from the Tampa area, but from Southwest Florida and the Keys.
One of the hotels scheduled to close this morning is the 717-room Tampa Marriott Waterside, the city's largest hotel. It could be affected if Tampa Electric Co. decides to shut off power downtown this morning to protect underground power equipment. Mary Scott, general manager of the Marriott hotel, said she was concerned that guests who occupied about 200 rooms Thursday night would not be able to find other accommodations today. She said Marriott officials were directing guests to sister properties in Orlando, but they were quickly filling up.
"This could be a huge problem," she said.
Danielle Courtenay, vice president of public relations for the Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the 100,000 rooms in the Orlando area were about 90 percent booked Thursday night, many filled with evacuees.
Lisa House, front office manager with the Comfort Inn, near Interstate 4 on U.S. 98 North in Lakeland, said they had 87 vacant rooms Thursday morning and by midday were sold out.
At the Holiday Inn Lakeland Hotel and Conference Center, general manager Jeff Albers said all 157 rooms were booked.
"The influx has definitely been attributed to the hurricane," he said.
Adil Dadahanov, front desk clerk at the Hampton Inn on Orange Blossom Trail hotel in Orlando, said evacuees were coming from as far as way as the Keys to the south and St. Petersburg to the west.
Paul O'Brien of London was among the travelers affected.
O'Brien and his family had been staying at the Holiday Inn in Clearwater Beach for the past 10 days. When the hotel was closed Thursday, O'Brien, his wife, Paula, and their two children, Ben, 7, and Matt, 5, were forced to relocate to the Holiday Inn Express Rocky Point in Tampa.
However, the Holiday Inn Express is near the Courtney Campbell Parkway, which crosses Old Tampa Bay. Late Thursday, hotel officials notified the O'Briens and other guests that the hotel could be ordered by emergency officials to close this morning. The O'Briens' plane was scheduled to depart for London tonight, but the couple said they were worried that the flight would be canceled. They tried booking a flight home Thursday but were told all seats were sold.
"We would like to stay here for a second night, if we are not evacuated," Paul O'Brien said.
It could have been worse, the O'Briens say: The storm could have hit at the beginning of their vacation.
Kevin Arnold, a Toronto resident, and his wife and 15- year-old son also were holed up at the Holiday Inn Express after being relocated from a Clearwater Beach condominium they had rented for a vacation.
"You can't control the weather. If it happens it happens," Arnold said.
Cheryl N. Schmidt contributed to this report.
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