SAVANNAH, Ga. – For the hotels, restaurants and other attractions in Savannah's historic downtown, Labor Day (search) weekend at first looked like a bust.
The specter of Hurricane Frances (search) scared off tourists and canceled a major saltwater fishing tournament, emptying 1,000 hotel rooms on one of the hospitality industry's biggest weekends of the year.
Then, the tide turned as Floridians fleeing the storm began showing up by the thousands Thursday and Friday, filling empty rooms and soaking up the coastal town's antebellum charm while they were there.
"Mother Nature has a way of keeping things interesting," said Anthony Schapp, president of the Savannah (search) Convention and Visitors Bureau.
From trolley rides that wind between the city's manicured squares to restaurants serving fried Southern comfort food and seafood platters, businesses in the historic district reported an unexpected boost from the evacuees.
"As soon as they get comfortable with their accommodations, they're asking about tours and restaurants," said Chris Mullally, an information specialist at the Savannah Visitors Center and Savannah History Museum.
Jim and Maria Wyatt headed out of their hotel Friday with their 8-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, as they tried to forget the previous day's traffic-clogged, nine-hour drive from their home in Melbourne, Fla.
"We're going to take [Elizabeth] to the Girl Scout headquarters — she's a Girl Scout — and do some tourist stuff," said Maria Wyatt, referring to the site where Juliette Gordon Low founded the girls' organization in 1912. "We're going to try to make a little vacation out of it."
Tourism officials were careful not to seem happy about making money off of people forced to leave their homes by the potentially devastating storm.
"You don't wish for this to happen; you just make the best of it," said Schapp. "If people can get here, relax and enjoy themselves a little bit, maybe it can alleviate some of the worries about what's going on back home."
But busy cash registers, regardless of the cause, meant sweet relief for business owners who had already taken one hit this year.
July's G-8 economic summit on nearby Sea Island had been expected to bring thousands of journalists, diplomats and protesters to town. But only a small percentage of the expected crowd actually showed up and restaurants and shops were nearly empty.
"Now, everyone who was planning on a big Labor Day weekend will still have some folks in town," said Schapp.