10/30/2012 01:12 am ET

Hurricane Sandy: Hotel Stay In Connecticut Offers Welcome Distraction From Storm Damage

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- The city is silent and dark. Power has been out for hours. Parts of town have become an obstacle course of downed trees and flooded roads, with bright-red flares warning drivers to stay away.

But despite the chaos just outside the sliding doors, the Holiday Inn-Bridgeport's lobby feels more like a tourist destination than a de facto shelter for those fleeing floodwaters and the prospect of long-term power outages.

Families played Uno and solitaire under lights powered by generators. Golden retrievers and Australian shepherds roamed among upholstered leather chairs. The bar was set to stay open until 1 a.m.

"If we had to do this again next year, no problem," joked Ed Magi of Fairfield, Conn., nursing a Coors Light after working all day to make sure equipment at his office, which is in an evacuation zone, would be protected from the storm. "Getting here was like pulling teeth. But hanging out here in our little den, I'm fine."

After securing homes and gathering valuables, many of those who gathered Monday evening in the hotel were looking for an escape, a break from worrying about the historic storm surges predicted for Long Island Sound. All throughout the night, conditions in southern Connecticut worsened: along bays and rivers, water levels rose quickly, making low-lying roadways impassable. Downed trees temporarily blocked parts of Interstate 95 through the state, as emergency crews combed the roadway to clear debris in punishing winds.

Walter McBride and his family evacuated from their Milford, Conn., home, which sits right across the road from the beach. Yet inside the hotel lobby, McBride seemed confident that his family would return Tuesday to a damage-free home.

"We don't believe it's going to affect our house," McBride said to those gathered around.

"Is that wishful thinking?" Joy Eller, who was sitting nearby, said with a smile.

"That's a deep-seated belief," McBride replied, also smiling.

Power in the hotel had been shut off since 7 p.m., which helped foster the gathering in the lobby, where evacuees traded jokes and stories.

Nearly everyone in the hotel had streamed in from towns across the state. Many had stayed at the same hotel last year, after Connecticut's widespread power outages following Hurricane Irene caused people to flee their homes.

Kevin Meath of Monroe, Conn., brought his children, his mother and his toy poodle, Peaches. His family had stayed at the same Holiday Inn for seven days in a row last year. The second he heard warnings about Sandy last week, he booked three nights again.

"One day without power, and that was enough to be prepared for this year," he said.

He's worried about downed trees and damage to his home, eager to return Tuesday to survey any damage. But on Monday night, the Holiday Inn lobby was all he was thinking about.

"It's mother nature, you can't do anything about that," he said. "So we make the best of it. Laugh, have some fun, and hey, you're with people you love."