LAND O’ LAKES — As Hurricane Irma lumbered north, a Cadillac sedan shot west, doing 80 mph toward the hospital. In the back seat, a man folded his 6-foot,1-inch frame over a dying woman.
He kept doing what he’d done for the past half-hour, pressing his palms into her chest like the dispatcher had said, twice per second — “One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four” — for 25 sets, then breathing twice into her mouth.
At the wheel, her hope slipping, Hayley Avellaneda begged silently for a miracle.
“One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four.” Breathe. Breathe.
She saw few cars on State Road 54 as she sped toward the Medical Center of Trinity. The dispatcher had said that county paramedics stopped working because of the storm, but the rain only drizzled on her windows.
This? Was this it?
• • •
Irma emptied islands, leveled buildings and killed dozens of people on its way to the U.S. mainland, but in Florida, it didn’t create a catastrophe like hurricanes that hit Texas and Puerto Rico.
In Pasco County, the storm downed trees and power lines and flooded rivers. The county housed more than 24,000 people in 26 shelters. Officials had tried to impose order on chaos, and they thought they’d done it well.
But for Avellaneda, Irma left behind more devastation than expected. Now, she’s suing Pasco County and alleging that negligence and poor communication on its part killed her mother.
The county will not comment on ongoing litigation, but officials were willing to discuss what was happening across Pasco before and during the storm. Avellaneda’s attorney said he sees it as a cut-and-dry case, one that hinges on a half-hour window and unkept promises.
• • •
Phone in hand, Avellaneda stood over her mother’s body. Barbara Hume’s eyes were half open, and her lips were parted. One of her legs dangled awkwardly off the bed, as if she’d tried to get up and failed.
Avellaneda had managed to squeak out her name and the address of her house on Victoria Road, but now her voice was trembling, and the dispatcher was asking her to repeat herself.
“I can’t hear you, sweetheart,” the woman said. “Take a deep breath.”
“She’s not breathing.”
It was 2:06 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 10.
“OK,” the dispatcher said. “I’m sending the paramedics to help you now.”
She told Avellaneda, 35, and her husband, Christian, 31, how to do CPR. Take her off the bed, lay her flat on the floor, no pillows. Press her chest twice per second, 600 times or until help arrives. Stop screaming and listen.
Storms didn’t scare Avellaneda. She had lived through all manner of them in her 30 years in Florida. And her family hailed from Oklahoma, where generations had outlasted tornadoes.
Her mother didn’t scare easily, either, but she didn’t want to ride out the storm alone in her north Tampa townhouse. At Home Depot, where she worked part-time, she’d seen the previous week’s scramble for generators and supplies. She took the Avellanedas’ guest bedroom for the weekend.
They were far from the evacuation zones on the county’s western edge — they didn’t even consider leaving. They figured they’d be safest hunkering down. Avellaneda’s husband spray-painted a message on the plywood over the front windows: “SUCK IT IRMA.”
Hume, 63, was a health-conscious woman who avoided sugar and rarely drank. She ate the same lunch almost every day — a ham sandwich on wheat bread with lettuce and mayo. But that Friday, she’d only scarfed down a couple of doughnuts and had felt sick since. In the car after her daughter picked her up from the townhouse, Hume vomited into a plastic bag, then said she felt a little better.
Her arms hurt, too, she said. Avellaneda asked if she’d been lifting items during work. She hadn’t, she said — she’d worked the forklift. She figured the hectic day had worn her out.
“I think I just overdid it,” she said.
She slept through the rest of the day and the day after that, and by Sunday, she felt well enough to watch cartoons with her two grandsons, though not well enough to let 4-year-old Greyson climb onto her lap. She didn’t like strangers seeing her sick, so when a couple of her son-in-law’s employees arrived to ride out the storm with them, she retired to the bedroom, where she called a friend and watched “Longmire” on her iPad.
Avellaneda brought Hume a plate of eggs, the first thing she’d been ready to eat all weekend. A minute later, she opened the bedroom door again, laughing at some forgettable joke she wanted to share with her mom. She saw her sprawled out on the bed. And she screamed.
“Keep doing it over and over and don’t give up,” the dispatcher was saying now, nine minutes into the call. “This will keep her going until paramedics arrive.”
Avellaneda listened, but in the background, she pleaded with her mother, even though she didn’t know if she could hear her.
“Come on, Mama.”
• • •
Near the end of August 2017, a smattering of thunderstorms and a wave of low air pressure drifted off the west African coast. It was a common enough disturbance for late summer, and most times, according to the National Weather Service, some other phenomenon, maybe a dry blast off the Sahara, would have broken everything up.
But this time, the warm Atlantic water and light winds in the upper atmosphere spun together a tropical depression. By the end of Labor Day weekend, Irma had barrelled across the ocean and become a Category 4 hurricane.
Through the holiday, a skeleton crew in Pasco County’s emergency management division watched the storm from its operations center, where a 7-foot-by-7-foot projector screen showed them regular updates. By the morning after Labor Day, they knew what they were seeing: The storm was a monster, and it was going to hit Florida.
Kevin Guthrie, the assistant county administrator for public safety, called a meeting of “stakeholders”: nearly 90 representatives of government agencies, schools, municipalities, the Red Cross. Some specialized in public safety and emergency situations. Many didn’t.
They met as Irma was sweeping across the Caribbean, leveling fire and police stations in the U.S. Virgin Islands, damaging nearly every building in Saint Martin and forcing a complete evacuation from Barbuda, an island that had been inhabited continuously for three centuries.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Guthrie started, “we are probably going to have a Category 2 hurricane go straight over Pasco County.”
He saw panic in their faces and tried to calm them.
“The emergency management team and the public safety team we’ve compiled here is second to none,” he said. “Listen to us, and we will get through it.”
At 7 a.m. that Friday, Sept. 8, Guthrie put out an all-hands-on-deck call, the first of its kind in years. All 2,500 county employees eligible to work in emergency response were now on the clock, around-the-clock.
Later that morning, as Irma blew along Cuba with 135-mph winds, the county ordered residents west of U.S. 19 to evacuate. And officials urged people across the county to leave if they lived in manufactured or mobile homes, or houses prone to flooding, or low-lying areas, or if they had chronic medical issues.
If Irma swallowed the county whole as Guthrie feared, he wanted as few people in its path as possible.
The roads filled with cars heading for Orlando or Georgia or a county shelter. Guthrie waited for the storm and the hard decisions it could force.
• • •
Now a new dispatcher came on the line, nine-and-a-half minutes into the call, as anxiety grew in the Avellaneda home.
“Keep going, guys, just keep going,” the male voice said. “I’m going to stay with you as long as I can.”
“Where are they?” Christian Avellaneda asked.
“The fire department’s not running right now for the storm,” the dispatcher said. “They’re going to see if they can find some way to get someone to you.”
Hayley Avellaneda tried to respond. A sob swallowed her words.
“They’re doing what they can,” the dispatcher continued. “These are unsafe conditions.”
“Oh, please god,” she said.
But the dispatcher had given her something to hang onto. “They’re going to see …”
She composed herself as she and her husband traded CPR duties. The paramedics wouldn’t just leave them to fend for themselves, she believed. They couldn’t.
Soon everything went quiet, except for the sound of counting. She asked if the dispatcher was still there.
“I’m still with you guys,” he said. “There aren’t many calls coming in right now.”
A few minutes later, the dispatcher told them he had to leave to take another call.
“Help will be on the way as soon as they’re able to be,” he said. “Keep going as long as you guys can, OK?”
Later that would make her angry, the dispatcher leaving them for another call. But in the moment, Avellaneda focused only on the compressions. She was sure somebody would come to help.
She kept looking toward the big window in the front of the room, the one blocked by plywood. Every time, she expected to see the pulse of ambulance lights coming to the rescue.
• • •
At the emergency operations center, people slept on the floor and under air ducts. They took their meals and showers there. They watched on the big screen as information rolled in from the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center.
By the morning of Sunday, Sept. 10, Category 4 Irma bore down on the Keys. Pasco County’s sandbag stations were closed. Some shelters had filled to capacity. At 10 a.m., Guthrie put out a statement: Emergency operations would be suspended at some point in the day, and people shouldn’t rely on paramedics to help them get to shelters.
A handful of factors could drive the decision to stop service. Crews on the ground, inclined as they were to head into danger, had permission to pull back at signs of extreme conditions. More likely, though, the call would come from the operations center.
Of particular importance was wind: Guthrie and other officials tracked readings from schools, fire stations and government buildings across the county, and crews would be called off in areas where winds of 40 mph were sustained for more than a minute.
The size of the county demanded they localize the decisions — weather might be clear for crews in Dade City at the same time it raged in Port Richey, for example.
Guthrie knew he might have to make a tough call, even amid constant and changing updates.
He took pride in his team’s ability to get word out as the storm approached: They posted regularly on social media, sent major updates through the AlertPasco app and had journalists from nearly all of the region’s major media outlets embedded with them. Notifications to employees across the emergency management system went out first via radio, then by text, email and finally a digital voice call.
But keeping residents up-to-date on localized changes was trickier. They could send out a notification when a fire station suspended service, but most people wouldn’t know what zone they lived in. They could add a map to it, but by the time they put that together and sent it out, the weather may have died down enough to resume operations. They wanted to avoid confusion.
And Guthrie had to account for other factors. One emergency call could take hours to resolve, so a crew might head out under clear blue skies and end up caught in the worst of the weather.
He thought often of Pearl River County in Mississippi, where he’d been for Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the eye of the storm, some first responders had gone out on a rescue call. Then the storm slammed back into them. One was decapitated.
Now, with an uncontrollable storm bearing down, Guthrie had to draw a line somewhere. He wouldn’t put his crews in danger.
• • •
Avellaneda waited for what felt like a long time — what was really five minutes — before again dialing 911.
She and her husband had each done hundreds of chest compressions by then, and she was exhausted. She had breathed into her mother’s mouth dozens of times and felt nothing back.
“We really need an ambulance,” she said. There was a long pause and the clacking, from the dispatcher’s side, of fingers on a keyboard. “Somebody has to come. Please. I need your help.”
“OK ma’am, I’ve got the notes updated,” the dispatcher finally said. “Um, I do not think they’re going to respond out there, though, because of —”
“No,” she said, and the word dragged on, quivering and sinking.
How can they not be sending somebody? she thought.
“I understand,” the dispatcher said. “I’m sorry to, you know, to have to tell you that, but there’s, you know…” He trailed off.
“It’s not even raining,” Avellaneda said, and her husband shouted it back over her: “It’s not even f—— raining!”
He tried to say something else, but the dispatcher talked over him: “Well, it might not be raining there, but it’s more of a question of —”
Then the call cut off.
• • •
About two hours later, Pasco County announced a curfew, demanding people stay off the roads from 7 that night until 11 the next morning.
“The purpose of this curfew is so our first responders can get to where they need to go,” Pasco County Sheriff’s Capt. Jared Hill explained in a video tweeted shortly after.
Later that night, just before 10:30, the county announced the suspension of all fire rescue responses.
Irma rolled over Pasco County around 2 a.m. Monday, its eye passing across Zephyrhills and St. Leo. By the time the county resumed services at 9:30 a.m., Irma had been downgraded to a tropical storm moving over north Florida, and the damage in Pasco was done.
Irma had pulled trees into houses and across roads, knocked out power for some 100,000 people, left homes in low-lying areas surrounded by water.
But according to the National Hurricane Center’s report, the storm didn’t kill anyone in Tampa Bay.
Nearly a year later, Guthrie said the decisions to call off first responders — at dangerous points throughout the day, then entirely at night — stuck with him long after the storm passed.
“I do reflect,” he said, “and many times, especially when it comes to communicating information, we often talk and say, ‘Was there a missing piece of information that could’ve made that decision better or easier or more quickly?’ … We dwell on it to learn from it.”
Those reflections have led to small changes in the county’s emergency preparedness, he said. Now, employees who don’t typically work in emergency fields will get more training about their roles in a hurricane — so that, for example, a park ranger isn’t showing up to sign people into shelters without instruction.
But Guthrie is proud of how the county handled the storm. He takes his continued employment, for one, as a sign of success. Had he bungled it, he doubts the county would have kept him around. And, he said, he thinks decisions before and during the storm saved lives.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, we did.”
• • •
Avellaneda’s final 911 call started a half-hour after her mother collapsed, and it lasted only three minutes, long enough for the dispatcher to direct her to the nearest hospital.
The phone picked up the sounds of her car: an insistent dinging, then the rumble of the engine. In the background, her husband counted in a breathy whisper: “One, two, three, four.”
“OK, I’m going,” she said at the end of the call. It was 2:38 p.m.
“OK,” the dispatcher said. “Be safe.”
She remembers parking the car in an ambulance pool devoid of ambulances. The leaves rustling softly on branches. Her fists on the hospital door, apparently the wrong door, and the staff waiting with a gurney at another entrance.
A conclusion: “Even if we could bring her back and get a pulse, her brain has been without oxygen for too long.” And a question: “Can we stop?” And her answer: “Yes.”
A nurse bringing over a pair of slippers, and Avellaneda realizing she’d forgotten to wear shoes.
They had to leave, eventually. The storm was still coming.
That night, as Irma roared toward Pasco County, she grabbed a pack of her husband’s Marlboro Reds and stepped onto the back patio. She sat down on the hard, damp stone, and though she hadn’t had a cigarette since she got pregnant with Greyson, she chain-smoked until the pack was empty.
In front of her was a surreal tableau: Her husband had heard you could protect patio furniture in a bad storm by sinking it in your swimming pool, and now the chairs and tables sat at the bottom of the pool.
Later, when the storm hit, they huddled sleeplessly inside, a few candles their only source of light. Avellaneda could hear the rage outside but not see it, a cacophony in the dark.
Irma demanded her attention, but she was filled with grief, anger, confusion, guilt. The storm couldn’t compete with the mass swirling inside her.
• • •
In the weeks and months after the storm, Avellaneda tried to clear the detritus it strewed across her life.
She took the nurse’s slippers back to the hospital. She pulled the patio furniture, rusted now, from the pool. She replaced it with a nicer set that had been her mother’s.
She wondered, what if they had told her straight away to drive to the hospital?
The cause of her mother’s death was attributed to a heart attack.
Avellaneda decided to sue, not because she wanted money but because she wanted an apology and maybe changes, so what happened to her family wouldn’t happen to anyone else’s. Later, she learned how to say “died” instead of “passed away.”
She cleaned out her mother’s townhouse but held onto a few of the watercolors Hume painted in her final years. Sometimes, she forgets she has so many. She doesn’t look at them much.
But if someone asks to see her mother’s work, she’ll pull out the canvases. She’ll look at each for a minute, drawing memories from the scenes.
There’s the pair of cranes huddling in the snow, a juxtaposition Hume found hilarious. A delicate cherry blossom she painted on Mother’s Day 2016. A New Orleans streetscape she never quite finished — or maybe she left the street signs blank on purpose.
She keeps them in a corner in the guest bedroom, a few feet away from a bed rarely slept in. And they’ll stay there until someone needs to look at them again, there in the room where her world collapsed.
Contact Jack Evans at [email protected] Follow @JackHEvans.
- Hurricane Irma notes: Bucs, USF games confirmed for Tampa this weekend; UCF, FIU games canceled
- Dolphins return to practice in California after Hurricane Irma
- Rays monitor Hurricane Irma news while beating Red Sox 4-1 (Sep 10, 2017)
- Irma pushes Miami at FSU game back to Oct. 7
- Awaiting Irma: Rays and Dolphins to be home on the road
- The Latest: FIU calls off its football game at Indiana
As they braced for Hurricane Irma, her mother collapsed. The help she called for never came. have 3244 words, post on www.tbo.com at September 4, 2018. This is cached page on Europe Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.