The 2005 And 2004 Hurricane Seasons Weren’t Easy On Florida. Here Are 5 Stories Of Hope And Survival.
It wasn’t that long ago that we all thought big hurricanes were the new normal. It was just a decade ago, really, when a few times a season we saw beach-destroying, roof-removing storms.
They were deadly, and they destroyed things indiscriminately. They took everything people had.
Consider that 2004 was, at the time, the costliest hurricane season on record, with 16 storms—half of them making contact with the U.S. The only more costly season? The next year, with 31 storms and $159 billion in damages.
Those seasons were an experience we all lived through. They were a story we told about what we did to make it through hours of hot, sticky storm. They were filled with hurricane parties and tales of neighbors helping each other.
Before we forget, before we think there’s a new normal of relative quiet, here’s a look back to that era when storms came one after the other. Just like living through the storms, some of these stories are sad or funny or simply a bit odd. Because it’s stories like these that help us remember.
Hurricanes Delayed This Couple’s Wedding Not Once, But Twice—And Yes, They’re Still Together
Matt Pawlowski and Tara Balzano invited about 200 guests to their wedding at the Boca Raton Resort & Club on Sept. 4, 2004. Friends and family flew in from New York and even Poland. Most of the guests had already arrived when Hurricane Frances blazed through the Bahamas and came ashore in Florida.
They had no choice but to cancel the wedding. Few of the guests could get flights out. So Tara, a teacher who grew up in Coral Springs, found homes where they could ride out the storm. Afterward, the couple rescheduled for Sept. 25, and nearly everyone flew back in. That’s the weekend Hurricane Jeanne came to town, and they had to do it all over again—wedding guests riding out the storm in strangers’ homes. “It was insane,” Matt recalls. “I mean, it was insanity.”
They heard a lot of jokes about the old saying—about rain on your wedding day. There were snide remarks about whether they ought to go through with it, about whether two storms on two dates was an omen. So they gave up.
Not on marrying each other, but on Florida. They held the wedding instead on Halloween in Long Island, where Matt grew up. That was more than 10 years ago now, and they’re still married. They have two kids, ages 4 and 8, who have heard the stories about the two weddings delayed by hurricanes.
“We have books of pictures from all three weddings, and all of our friends still talk about it,” Matt says. “You can laugh about it now, but it wasn’t so funny at the time.”
It’s “kind of ironic,” Matt says, that he now holds the position of senior manager of transmission services for FPL, a job that will be infinitely harder the next time a storm hits.
Every hurricane season, Matt and Tara pray for good weather. For many reasons.
When Hurricane Wilma Took The Roof Of Their Delray Beach Condo, Elena Ecker And Her Husband Had No Choice But To Stay Put
There are a couple things you should know up front about Elena Ecker. First off, she’s not going to tell you how old she is. “I don’t tell anybody that,” she explains.
The second is that Ecker, who retired here from Albany, is not much of a complainer, like if you ask her about when the roof of her condo flew off during Hurricane Wilma. “It wasn’t like I was looking at the sky,” she explains. “There’s a bunch of layers to every roof. We just lost the top layer.”
It happened at about noon, halfway through Wilma passing over her King’s Point condo in Delray Beach. What that meant for Ecker and her husband was that they rode out the rest of Wilma with rain dripping in everywhere and wind whipping so loud it sounded like the building itself might collapse around them.
After the storm, they moved what wasn’t soaked to a rental condo and waited for the repairs. Those took three years. By then, the Eckers bought another condo and sold their old home, despite the heartbreak it brought them. “You don’t expect to have to deal with this kind of thing when you’re retired,” she says. “You want to be in your home forever.”
Her husband, Ernest J. Ecker, a retired teacher, died in 2010. He was 87. She’s alone in the new condo now. If there’s another storm, that’s where she’ll be.
“Where in the world would I go? I’m alone, so I’m not going to get in the car and head north. I’ll just stay put and pray to God,” she says.
How One Man Rode Out Hurricane Jeanne On The Roof Of His House
It was maybe 1:30 in the morning when John Tolliver felt a drip right on his forehead. Hurricane Jeanne had knocked out the power to his West Palm Beach house, so Tolliver turned on a flashlight and shined it at the ceiling. Water was coming in.
Tolliver, a realtor who lives in a cute bungalow with Spanish-style parapets on the corners, knew what he had to do. The drain holes on his flat roof must have clogged. If he didn’t clean them out, the water could get so heavy that his roof might collapse. Even with the hurricane raging outside, he had to get on the roof.
His wife at the time, Carolina, was in a deep sleep. That was her first hurricane, and to make sure she would sleep through the night, Tolliver had fed her a whole bottle of wine. “Carolina,” Tolliver said, trying to shake her awake. “I’m going on the roof. If I’m not back in 10 minutes, come check on me.”
Afraid of debris, Tolliver donned his motorcycle helmet, one of those half shells that just came down to his ears. He put on a rain jacket, swim trunks and water shoes. Outside, sheets of rain blew in every direction, as if the clouds were all around him. Tolliver grabbed an extension ladder and, fighting the wind, somehow managed to prop it up against the side of his house.
The roof was a swimming pool, inches of water trapped on top. Ducking flying debris, Tolliver sloshed his way to the drain and started pulling out the clog. After the water started flowing, Tolliver made his way back over to the spot where he came up.
But the ladder was gone. The wind must have taken it.
“Carolina!” Tolliver yelled to his wife. But the howling wind drowned him out. He tried banging on the roof, on the walls, but none of it was louder than the hurricane.
The winds picked up, and standing was dangerous, in part because of flying debris, but also because a gust just might knock him off. Tolliver crouched in one corner of his roof, behind one of the stucco parapets. He shined his flashlight straight up. Above him, the sky was a soup of foliage and roof tiles.
Two hours he stayed like that, hoping debris wouldn’t find him. It was just a matter of time before a piece of something, maybe a coconut shot like a cannonball, would take him down.
So with the wind howling and palm fronds flying like birds, he began lowering himself off the roof. His fingers gripped the side of the house as he readied for the 20-foot drop.
And then he let go.
Since that night, Tolliver is a far better hurricane planner. He cleans out his roof drains beforehand. He owns a natural-gas-powered generator. He buys supplies of food, water, and gas well in advance. “I don’t take any chances,” he says. Because he knows he doesn’t want to end up on the roof again.
He landed just fine, on his feet, somehow not hurting himself. But during the next hurricane, he will be safe in bed.
Boca Raton Lawyer Paul Berger Turns Mess From 2004 Hurricane Season Into Business Aimed At Helping Storm Survivors
Paul Berger moved to west Boca Raton in 2004, when hurricanes were still mostly a distant memory. Then came Frances and Jeanne and Charlie and Wilma.
Berger found his calling. A lawyer without a specialty, he started hearing stories about people whose insurance claims were being denied. “I don’t want to say I was in the right place at the right time, because I don’t know if there’s ever a good time or not for disasters,” Berger says. “But there I was.”
Berger founded the Hurricane Law Group, representing property owners appealing insurance claims. He points out that insurers paid $9.2 billion in claims after Wilma, but another estimated $2 billion in claims were never filed.
For the next storm, he wants to see more people get the money they deserve. After Ike, he spent months in Texas. After Sandy, he lived for a year in New York, filing claims and fighting insurance carriers that he says were filing false reports about damage. Truth is, many of the adjustors hired after storms are largely untrained and inexperienced, and Berger says homeowners shouldn’t trust them.
Berger has also learned a lot about who makes it out of storms OK. His advice? “Just leave town. That’s the No. 1 thing. I’d say it to anybody.”
It would be nice if we learned lessons from the previous storms, but Berger says unscrupulous insurance companies will do the same kind of things if we’re hit again. “They say State Farm is ‘like a good neighbor,’ but after a hurricane? No, they’re not,” he says.
One thing Berger has to deal with is battling the perception that he’s some kind of vulture. Truth is, he’s just trying to help people, he insists.
“There’s a term the Germans use called schadenfreude, and it’s taking pleasure in people’s pain. We walk a fine line,” Berger says. “We don’t want a disaster to happen, and the world shouldn’t need me. But the next time something happens, I’ll be there.”
On The Job After Hurricane Wilma, Former Miami-Dade Sergeant Realizes How Lucky His Family Really Was
When Wilma reached Broward County, Bruce Dyson was standing in the doorway to his backyard. He was watching the hurricane bend trees over like licorice sticks. Then the wind picked up his Weber grill.
Dyson lives near Weston in a house built in 1977 by serious tennis players. They put a court in the backyard.
“The grill just takes off for the tennis court,” Dyson recalls. “I just watched it climb. Honestly, it was like a satellite taking off.”
That’s when Dyson knew it was time to shut the door. He had lived through Andrew and Katrina, so luckily he knew to board up. That was more than most people, considering Wilma was just a category one storm and headed from the Gulf, two things that were supposed to mean it wouldn’t be much.
Afterward, Dyson walked outside to see the destruction. His is an older neighborhood, so big trees draped across the streets. Dyson was a Miami-Dade sergeant, so he went to work that next day, even though he didn’t have water or power at home.
His job for three weeks was to park himself outside businesses so that they didn’t get looted. He did the overnight shift, 7 to 7, an hour away in south Miami-Dade. Meanwhile, his family—his wife, 3-year-old son, 1-year-old daughter, and his in-laws—figured out life without the basics. They bathed in water from bottles and used lanterns at night. For a month, Dyson’s neighborhood sounded like a thousand chainsaws working at once, all day, when Dyson was supposed to be sleeping.
Three days in, Dyson broke down and bought a generator, but that meant sitting in line for gas after his night shift. Still, he jokes, “It was a lot cheaper than a divorce.”
His home suffered $50,000 in damage to the roof and gutters, repairs that took months. And maybe this all sounds like Dyson had reason to complain. But that drive Dyson had to make every day brought him past homes missing roofs and windows or caved in by trees. “I still had a house, I still had windows, I still had my family,” he remembers. “I still had what was important.”
Dyson is retired now, and he bought himself a new grill. He never found the Weber he watched enter orbit.