As Hurricane Matthew barreled along the Treasure Coast, the Tropical Inn Resort became a haven for a group of people who were already seeking refuge from something else that threatened their lives: addiction.
The Tropical Inn Resort, a former Days Inn directly across from the broad Indian River, operates as a rehab clinic and alcohol-and-drug free hotel. Most guests weren’t there for Florida sun and fun. Some hailed from Ohio, ground zero not for potential hurricane landfall but a devastating opioid crisis. The front-desk clerk, just 22 years old, once overdosed on heroin but is now proudly clean.
Dawn McLaughlin, a mother of four, sober for a little less than two years, checked in about three weeks ago. She sent her kids to live with her mother inland, but chose to ride out the storm with her boyfriend after stocking up on candles, water and gummy bears.
“I’m scared to death,” McLaughlin, 31, told more than a dozen of the guests as they gathered Thursday night inside a meeting room. “I’m from Boston. I’m only used to snowstorms.”
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At the Tropical Inn Resort, the hurricane was only the latest storm to weather for most of the nearly 100 guests who have struggled with substance abuse, and found themselves hunkered down to face Matthew’s ferocious winds and driving rain.
For Larry Crafter, a former addict and now a case manager at the Tropic, the gathering was no accident. He led the group in a prayer.
“You have brought us to this place for a purpose and we pray that it is to keep us safe throughout this storm,” he said. “As the storm passes, we will be able to look back and say it’s because we stood together that we were able to get through it.”
The Tropical Inn Resort itself is a kitschy but sturdy throwback, built in the early 1980s, with mango-and-saffron colored walls, tiki hut palm fronds over a bar (that serves only coffee) and beach-scene wallpaper. For the past several years, the building along U.S. 1 in southern Brevard County has also housed the Tropical Wellness Center, which draws guests with therapy sessions, a supportive community feel — and a no-drugs-or-booze policy.
Hannah Cosgrove, 22, wound up here after nearly a decade of drug abuse and shuffling to and from detox and rehab centers. Rock bottom wasn’t the day she overdosed earlier this year in South Carolina, nearly killed by heroin and Xanax, saved only by a last-minute injection of the drug Narcan. Weeks of binges followed to the real bottom — the moment she and her fiancé, needing a fix, stole $160 from her mother. A few days later, they were placed on a flight to Florida and a room at the Tropical.
“I just kind of woke up,” said Cosgrove, who now works the front desk and hopes to one day earn a degree in business.
For many here, Hurricane Matthew was a new and very sobering experience. A slight girl with gray eyes, Cosgrove spent the day gathering ice for guests, checking on the handful of elderly folks and researching online flood patterns.
“This is all I’ve got. I don’t have family here,” Cosgrove said. “These people are like my family. We’re a tight-knit community.”
Their long night began, semi-officially, around 7 p.m. on Thursday, as staff and a handful of guests gathered in a meeting room adorned with motivational sayings like “principles over personality” and “I accept myself.”
Shawn Poling, the facility’s director of operations, stretched his legs on a couch, his eyes bleary. He’d barely slept in the past three days. A former heroin addict from Ohio who spent time behind bars, Poling, 43, is a father figure of sorts for many of the young people at the Tropical.
A burly man with a sleeve of tattoos on his right arm, Poling has been clean two years and found his calling revitalizing the facility. As the storm bore down, every detail had to be accounted for.
The cars on the east side facing the water had to be moved to a lot behind the building. There was danger there too: A tractor trailer filled with phone books might topple with enough wind.
A few guests, he found, had been drinking, which led to some quiet but stern words from the earnest Poling. He scoured town for flashlights, finding only a couple. There wasn’t a generator to be found for hundreds of miles.
“If the cable goes out, we’re all in this together — we’ve got 300 board games,” Poling joked to the gathering. “But it’s inevitable. The electricity will go out.”
After the prayers, the guests retreated to their rooms, knowing the meeting room was the designated safe space if the winds became unbearable.
As Thursday melted into Friday, the winds picked up as someone finally turned off the histrionic drone of local TV news to reruns of “Law & Order.” Guests played pool, slipping out into the wind to puff cigarettes. The smell of Ramen noodles and burnt coffee wafted in the air.
Eventually, everybody retreated to their rooms.
Until 4:16 a.m. Friday, when the electricity, after wheezing in and out most of the night, finally snapped off. The winds howled and darkness swallowed the Tropical.
Joseph Canale, a retired photo employee with The Associated Press, switched on his battery-powered lamp inside one of the meeting rooms. He was one of the few guests not there for addiction issues. His sister and two friends found shelter here from their homes in nearby Micco. The Tropical was the only hotel that would allow Coco, their Bichon-Shih Tzu mix, who whined adorably as she tugged her leash toward two young children lounging on chairs.
Terrified of the winds, the group relocated from their rooms to the main meeting room.
“It was desperation; nobody else would take pets,” Canale said of their stay. “We’re glad we’re here. Everybody has been great with us. This place is eclectic, to say the least.”
Down a dark hall, Poling and a few others stretched out on wicker chairs in the lounge area. The TV was no longer on. He still hadn’t slept.
“We lost the fence,” he said, his face illuminated only by his cellphone.
“It’s a bunch of leaves on the ground, that’s it,” somebody grumbled. By 5 a.m. Friday, the latest update showed Matthew’s eye would remain just off shore — the long night would prove another life challenge that all had survived.
The work for Poling wasn’t quite done. A pair of men in a U-Haul truck, with nowhere to go, ran out of gas and arrived at the hotel in desperation. He found them an unoccupied room to let them ride it out.
A couple of hours later, daylight revealed that the winds and water had spared the Tropical. A fence at the pool had toppled. A hotel marquee peeled away and was gone.
“Hell, I thought our roof was going to be gone,” Poling said. “This is nothing we can’t fix.”