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Shelter from the storm

By Michael Davis

Lydia and Geoff Williams pulled up to Atlanta Motor Speedway late Friday night with three young children and only their two vehicles to sleep in.

On the run from Hurricane Frances, the Cocoa, Fla. couple and their children joined more than two dozen Floridians they had never met before, all brought together seeking a safe place to avoid the storm.

Having come through Hurricane Charley only three weeks before, Lydia Williams said what she heard about the strength of Frances changed her mind about riding out another hurricane.

"We were going to leave even before they told us to evacuate," she said Sunday.

As hurricane evacuees camped out at AMS's east turn, on the banks of a pond surrounded by towering trees, locals brought food, drinks and other items, making sure no one went without.

Two women with Rockdale County tags dropped off homemade chocolate cakes and bread Sunday as campers waited for entertainment Sunday provided by World Changers International Church. One child hurriedly wrapped another in toilet paper?a contest for a CD player.

Hurricane updates were provided by a television donated by a local man on Saturday.

During the Labor Day weekend, a small village sprang up on the speedway grounds. Families from Daytona, Port Orange, Fort Myers and Windermere, Fla. set up camp. An improvised buffet table held provisions of fried chicken, paper plates, soaps and sundry items.

"It's not surprising when you've all got one thing in common," said Leonard Donovan, 60, of the sense of community taking over the gravel parking lots. "You're running and you've found a place to settle."

Indeed, a nurse and member of the World Changers church came to the aid of the Williamses when they discovered their youngest, Sebastian, not yet 1 year old, came down with an ill-timed case of chicken pox.

"He was fine the day before," said Lydia Williams, pointing out the pock marks that sprang up on her son Saturday. "It's not a good time for chicken pox and sickness," she said.

Having set up camp in a quasi-quarantine across the pond from the majority of the other evacuees, she said, nurse Audrey Taylor "gave us some Benadryl and some medicine."

In the meantime, a Hampton resident brought a pop-up style camper for the Williamses to sleep in and another evacuee gave them some air mattresses to sleep on.

"The first night, my husband and I slept in the truck and the kids in the Durango. It was kind of cold the first night," Lydia Williams said.

Millions of Florida residents were ordered to evacuate their homes last week, many heading for higher and dryer ground in Georgia. Thursday and Friday, Interstate 75 was clogged with refugee motorists, looking for a place to stay.

Sarah Robbins, tourism director for the Henry County Chamber of Commerce's Convention and Visitors Bureau said that as early as Friday, many of the hotels in the area were full.

"As unfortunate as it is, it is helpful for Henry County's economy," she said.

Patrick Christy and Stephanie Carter, both from Daytona, were planning to stay with friends in a camper at the speedway.

"Some guys I work with were bringing up a camper and we were going to meet up," Christy said.

But the camper wound up at Lake Allatoona instead, leaving the couple without shelter at AMS. Another example of a story told over and over on the speedway grounds this weekend, someone came to their aid and the couple wasn't without shelter for long.

Another pop-up camper donated by a local showed up and Sarah Counter gave Christy and Carter her tent.

From Windermere, Fla., Counter drove up Friday and was one of the first to take advantage of the open grounds offered by AMS.

"I changed lanes on the interstate just to get a different view of a different car," she said.

Most on the grounds Sunday planned to stay for at least a few more days, well aware of Frances' painfully slow trek across the Florida peninsula. The Associated Press reported some evacuation orders had been lifted and a few allowed to return to their homes. Airports in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale reopened Sunday.

The storm was expected to hit the Florida Panhandle today after swirling through the Gulf of Mexico. And though Frances lost intensity passing over land, it wasn't clear how much strength it would pick up from the warm gulf waters.

Roger and Muriel Couture drove up I-75 from Fort Myers, pulling into AMS on Friday. "It took two days to get here," 80-year-old Roger Couture said.

Helping to rearrange the buffet table Sunday, stacking cases of donated bottled water to make room for more food, Couture said he and his wife will likely stay until Wednesday.

"There's no sense rushing back through the storm," he said.