BATTERED,
UNBEATEN

A FATHER AND SON LIVING IN THE
CITRUS GROVES OF CENTRAL FLORIDA
SURVIVE THE FURY OF HURRICANE
CHARLEY, WHICH DESTROYED THEIR
HOME, AND THE FLOODS OF HURRICANE
FRANCES, BUT AS MORE STORMS HEAD
THEIR WAY, THEY HOLD ON TO HOPE.

Sunday, September 19, 2004      

By JESSE HAMILTON
Courant Staff Writer

ARCADIA, Fla. -- In the days after the sky fell a
second time on the Peace River, Johnny Georges
chose to live as if it wouldn't fall again.

The Lord wouldn't send a third hurricane up this
central Florida river, peeling back roofs, plucking
old oaks from the earth and dumping a sea of flood
water across the pastures. There wasn't much more
room for misery in Arcadia. Nor was there room
for it in the cramped trailer that was the only dry
place left to Georges and his 8-year-old son after a
month that reinvented their world.

In that trailer they watched weather forecasts as
saturated with bad news as the ground around
them. The reports predicted that Hurricane Ivan, a
killer grinding through the Caribbean, would be
Florida's knockout uppercut after the left and right
haymakers of hurricanes Charley and Frances.

But things were already bad enough. A month after
Charley, and days before Ivan was to hit, Georges
and his son, Wesley, drove through a field where he
had been installing $80,000 in irrigation pipes
before the storms.

``That's what your daddy puts in the ground,'' he
told the boy, pointing out a mile-long plastic pipe
now tossed across the field and irreparably broken.

``So people can have water?'' Wesley asked.

``Yep. And it's all gone.''

Charley and Frances were bad, but Ivan was being
called one of the strongest hurricanes ever
measured. The land and people along the Peace
River were already hurting. It wouldn't take 130
mph winds to make this green country a wasteland.
Georges knew: ``We get 5 inches of rain, we're
gonna flood.''

Hurricane Charley

Richard Pius ``Rick'' Georges was getting into
trouble. It was 1960 in New Britain, Conn., and the
former altar boy was hard to handle. So, the story
goes, his mother and stepfather moved to central
Florida to start over, dragging Rick to a new place.
He would blow into Florida with Hurricane Donna
and, in the coming years, start his own family.

Humble beginnings of shoe shining and washing
dishes grew into better things, and eventually into
his own business: Georges Enterprises Inc. It
would grow alongside his own family, including his
boy, Johnny, who shared his thick eyebrows and
bottomless energy. Rick Georges, sometimes called
``Rain Maker,'' invented a new way to water the
citrus groves, the lifeblood of this place.

That invention and the success it brought
represented his serious side. But his personal life
was a storm of wives and unruliness -- as chaotic
as the hurricane that in 1998 carried his name,
Georges. His was a life of high-stakes card games
and Seagram's V.O. whiskey, a 10-story
Connecticut Yankee personality lording it over a
southern land.

Johnny Georges, who worked for 20 years with his
father, said of him: ``My dad was only 5-foot-4,
but he was larger than life in my eyes.'' In 2002,
five days after the cancer-stricken Rick Georges
married his eighth wife, he died. The family
company and everything else Rick Georges had
was in the hands of his new wife, who wanted to
have the man's body buried in the yard next to his
dog. It sparked a very public fight that ended with
his father buried in a cemetery plot away from his
family, under a garish tombstone that still puts a
scowl on his son's face. Johnny Georges also
fought his stepmother on life-insurance claims in
court. The fight is still going on, but he's resigned
to the loss of everything his father built.

Since then, the younger Georges, now 38, joined up
with another company and started to make his own
irrigation division, unaware that the seas south of
Florida were brewing tempests that would threaten
it all. In August, on Friday the 13th, one ferocious
storm called Charley was steaming toward Tampa
Bay.

With an hour's notice, just before reaching Florida,
Charley turned east to hit the towns around the
Charlotte Harbor and to the northeast, along the
banks of the Peace River, normally a placid,
67-mile tea-colored stream. Georges has a little
25-acre ranch on Horse Creek, which pours into
the Peace near Arcadia -- an Anywhere, U.S.A.
town of about 6,500 souls, framed by orange
groves, big enough for a Wal-Mart but a world
away from Florida tourism. The eye of the storm
was coming straight for it.

Georges' house is partially built on stilts in the
middle of an oak-strewn pasture. He had spent a
lot of nights and weekends reinforcing the columns
and renovating the house he had long dreamed of.
Months ago, the single father moved into the place
with his son. They hung deer racks on the walls
and made it their own, this house far removed from
anything but an alligator-haven creek, a sky full of
stars and the cattle and horses Georges tends. All
of it was now threatened, and there was no time for
him and his son to do anything but wait for the
weather.

At dinnertime on the 13th, Charley came. The
storm devoured the sky and tore things from the
ground, scattering debris at NASCAR speeds. The
sound of wind and rending filled the heads of father
and son until they could barely think. They went
downstairs to the bathroom --the best shelter in the
house. Georges, a compact and muscular man,
clutched his terrified son. They cowered while
hurricane-spawned tornadoes tore at the ranch and
finally pulled the roof off the house with a terrible
rip.

Then it was calm. They walked from the house
into a light breeze and gentle skies. But Georges
knew better. He got his son into their Ford F-150
and drove toward a friend's house. The whole area
was blasted, but he managed to get through the
roads to the other house, where they hurried inside.
The eye had passed. The rest of the storm was on
top of them. the wind blew 145 mph in the
opposite direction now, flipping wind-bent trees
back the other way and snapping their trunks.
Georges saw an oak as big around as a 55-gallon
drum twisted from the ground like an apple stem
and lifted into the sky. He joined Wesley, praying
in a shower stall with three other people.

``Dear God, we love you,'' he prayed aloud.
``Please save us.''

He thought: ``Take me, but don't hurt my child.''
In the random indifference of a storm that would
kill 27 in Florida, both went unhurt. Wesley would
say later: ``God knew I was scared.''

The coming days would be a blur of fear and work,
worry and hard feelings. Friends were at each
other's throats, Georges and his friend among them.
And the land had to be cleared of century-old trees
and scattered personal possessions. Georges' house
was a mess. It took half a day just to clear the road
to get to it. Much of the roof was off. The interior
was soaked by rain that had followed the storm
and stayed for a while, breeding toxic black mold
that made it unlivable. His generator was the only
source of electricity. He had to stockpile bottled
water. In desperation, he spent $15,000 on a travel
trailer -- a place to live beside the wreck of his
home. With much of his irrigation work and a
newly built office in ruins, it was money he
couldn't afford to spend. But then, he couldn't
afford not to have a place for his son.

He thought about what his father would have said:
``He would have taken me in a room and said,
`John, it's time to buckle down.'''

Hurricane Frances

Johnny Georges has been married twice. His first
wife bore a son, John Wesley Georges.
Wesley.

The marriage fell apart. His wife was gone and
wasn't a regular part of the boy's life. So Georges
became a single father. Though he had grown up
with two parents, he knew what single parenting
was about. His firebrand father had spent his time
at work and play -- leaving his wife to raise the
children by herself. As a result, Georges centered
his life on golden-haired Wesley, to give the boy
the kind of father he never had. The stakes would
only get higher after Charley.

The land around Arcadia had changed. Trees lay
everywhere, root boles the size of school buses
clinging to wads of sandy soil. The wind had blown
the second story off a brick schoolhouse. Massive
limbs had plunged through roofs. Street signs were
gone or twisted. Business signs had shattered, and
vacant billboard skeletons lined the roads.

The wind carried acrid smoke from burn piles.
Spray paint warned: ``Looter, you will be shot,''
and it was there for a reason. The days after the
storm brimmed with lawlessness and bands of
organized thieves.

At DeSoto Excavating Inc., a brand new shop that
was to hold Georges' growing irrigation operation
had been torn open by the storm. A small office
building beside it -- Georges' office -- was gone.
Cinder blocks remained, along with twisted
hurricane straps that were supposed to hold the
building in place. There were no other signs that his
newly furnished office, the proof he could make it
without his dad, had once been there.

But the worst blow came from an unforeseen
direction. A week after Charley, he was served
legal papers: Wesley's mother wanted custody of
his son. The child's mother claimed Georges was
unable to provide an appropriate place for his son
to live. The accusation staggered him. It was a
dispute he would be willing to contest with
everything he had left, but it was a tough time for
it. He could hardly imagine what else could go
wrong.

Georges then made a conscious decision. He and
his son would shut out the negative things around
them. Conversations would be positive.
Devastation on the newspaper's front page? Flip to
the sports section. Everybody wants to talk about
suffering? Turn it into a discourse on the dramatic
recovery underway, all these people helping each
other. That way of thinking helped put Georges in
a state that seems more natural to him.

But more than anything, he wanted a rose-tinted
view for Wesley. He wanted to protect him, even if
it meant keeping reality at bay. Then along came
Frances.

Hurricane Frances darkened the east at the start of
September. It moved slowly, rumbling toward a
shell-shocked Florida. ``Dad,'' Wesley asked, ``are
we going to be OK?'' Georges staked the trailer
tight to the ground while Frances followed a steady
path and dumped a sea of water across the middle
of the state. The upper Peace River marked the
place where the eyes of Charley and Frances
crossed in an X. If there was one place Arcadia
didn't want a massive rainfall, it was there. Upriver.

The wind and rain from Frances strained the little
trailer on the Georges' ranch, but it survived. Two
days later, the real harm showed itself in the rise of
the Peace River over its shallow banks, until the
little river was now a half-mile wide, flooding oak
groves and pasture land until they looked like
mangrove stands in the Everglades. Horse Creek
joined it, sending a water line creeping ever closer
to his house, hundreds of yards from the creek bed,
until Georges almost could have spit a mouthful of
his Skoal tobacco juice from the trailer door into
the muddy water.

Georges, whose business was water, knew the last
thing his customers around DeSoto County would
be wanting now would be water. But there was no
time to worry about business now. His family had
to come first. Wesley looked dejected about the
flooded ranch, so he put the boy in their go-cart,
and they plowed it through the mud until it was
out of gas.

Georges knew this was a resilient country. He
ached at the destruction, but could see the recovery
since Charley. The receding flood left a smell of
decay, but there also was the greenhouse smell of
life returning to grass blades and new leaves on the
surviving trees. Frances had been beaten.

So he refused to see doom when he heard about a
new hurricane, Ivan -- a pinwheel of destruction
leveling faraway islands and projected to come
straight over his land.

``I'm not going to worry about him,'' he would say.
``If he shows up, that's fine.''

After all, he had learned in tough-man fighting
competitions that there wasn't any point fearing
something until you get in the ring with it and see
how things go.

But maintaining that casual attitude wasn't easy.
``Charley destroyed everything, and Frances
flooded everything,'' Georges said. ``And hell's
coming back for more.''
Hurricane Ivan
Charley and Frances had frightened Wesley deeply.
In the days before Ivan, the boy was worrying
again. So his dad decided he would haul the trailer
to safety at the first sign of trouble from this new
storm. ``Wherever it was going, I was heading the
opposite way,'' he said.

Hurricane plans and predictions were about all
anybody in Arcadia talked about. The
townspeople had been long on the edge of fear and
now were wide-eyed and twitching with
burned-out nerves.

Then, last Sunday, came news that Ivan had fooled
the forecasters. It's steady path started to wobble,
moving farther west than expected. It looked as if
central Florida would be spared the brunt of this
third storm in a month. But orange growers were
looking up and wondering if the blue Sunday sky
was a liar's promise. It wouldn't take hurricane
winds to ruin them. Only a few inches of rain
would be enough to rot their trees' roots and spoil
the rest of their fruit. If the ground got any wetter,
even a moderate wind could blow the trees over.

Before sunrise Monday, Wesley spooned Cocoa
Puffs into his mouth while his dad watched The
Weather Channel and its Ivan coverage. ``I don't
want any more,'' Georges said to the television. To
his son: ``Had a belly full, didn't we?''

``Yes we did,'' Wesley answered.

On the way to school, it was still dark, but the
local juice plant was lit up enough to see its storage
containers, huge tanks crumpled like the cans of
Dr. Thunder soda Georges always drank.

Wesley had hurricanes on his mind. He had seen
Ivan on television, carving up Caribbean islands.
``Did you see what Ivan did to that place?''

``Uh huh,'' his dad said.

Arcadia seemed like a ghost town. When they
reached West Elementary School, the parking lot
was empty. School had apparently been shut down
for Ivan; Georges hadn't heard about it.

``You could have slept in,'' he said.

``Yeah, I'd be sleeping good right now,'' his son
answered.

Georges, frustrated nobody had called him about
the cancellation, dropped his son off at a church
day-care center. ``I'm going to work,'' he told
Wesley. ``We got payroll to make this week.''

Some of DeSoto's payroll would be met by
demolishing ruined homes, dragging the rubble to
the sides of roads, already piled high with debris.
There was repair work on irrigation systems
needed by the besieged growers, who were
watching millions of dollars of fruit rotting on the
ground under their trees. Georges was glad his
crews were getting work, whether it was born of
hardship or not.

The next morning, as Wesley ate his Pop Tart and
drank a Yoo-Hoo, his dad had The Weather
Channel on again. Georges wasn't paying attention
until he heard the words ``Category 5 Hurricane.''

``What?'' he said, turning to hear Ivan called one of
the most powerful hurricanes on record, with 160
mph winds.

Georges had lost 15 pounds since Charley. His
jeans, marked with a back-pocket circle where his
Skoal lives, hung loose, his belt cinched to its last
hole. He just didn't feel like eating.

He took Wesley to school. A teacher who greets
the children in the parking lot folded the boy in her
big arms, burying his blond hair in her waist.
``Have you had breakfast?'' she asked.

``Yes, ma'am,'' he said.

Wesley was excited to be back at school. Many of
the 755 students were now homeless or had moved
out of town. Two of the 17 kids in Wesley's class
withdrew after Charley. Another two hadn't made
it to school Tuesday.

The third-graders, including Wesley, buzzed and
found excuses to get up from their desks and move
around Lynn States' classroom. They watched a
janitor pick up shards of glass from the window
that vandals had broken the night before. She
settled the children down.

``I realize it just seems like one thing after another,
but we need to get into procedure,'' she said to
them. ``I really want to get back into that. We'll all
feel better.''

During silent reading, Wesley flipped through a
book called ``No Trouble at All.'' In the corner,
three computers were covered in preparation for
Ivan. Near them, the words of the poem, ``Who
Has Seen the Wind?'' filled a poster: ``Who has
seen the wind? Neither you nor I: But when the
leaves bow down their heads; The wind is passing
by.''

``We're not going to have any more days out,''
States told her class, which had missed more than
two weeks of school because of the three
hurricanes. ``No more,'' she said, smiling and
swiping her hand through the air.

Back home that night, Wesley climbed on his new
dirt bike, a birthday present between hurricanes,
and started tearing through the mud left behind by
the flood. Georges put on rubber boots to walk his
property. In the dusk, he took slow steps through
the black water, easing over submerged branches,
stumbling over hidden holes, watching for snakes
and alligators.

``This is unreal, man,'' he said, splashing around
fallen trees, having a hard time recognizing the
terrain he knew so well.

He came to a half-sunken gate. Hanging on it was a
water moccasin, a venomous snake. He pulled a
10-foot bullwhip from his shoulder and snapped it
twice at the snake, scaring it back into the water.
In some places, the water reached the top of his
legs. Scattered through it were artifacts of his old
life, including a section of his roof. Standing beside
the debris in knee-high water, he quoted Theodore
Roosevelt, about the outdoors being a place for
strong men. This was Georges as back-country
philosopher, holding forth under squadrons of
dragonflies.

He'd been through a rough five weeks, but things
were looking a little better. A judge in town made
him feel good about his chances in the custody
fight for Wesley. Insurance seemed OK with
paying to rebuild his house, which he had already
started gutting. And slow-moving Ivan was defying
forecasters again. Its weaving path had shifted all
the way to the farthest edge of Florida's Panhandle.

On Wednesday, Ivan arrived. After so many days
of killing, with more yet to come on the Gulf
Coast, its edge skirted over Arcadia. There was
some rain and wind, and bands of clouds towered
in the sky. But the weather wouldn't be enough to
hurt this place again. It was gone by nighttime.

George's uncle and aunt, Greg and Charlene
Lawson, came down to visit from their home not
far from Orlando. They brought steaks, which
Georges cooked on his homemade grill.

By the time they left, the clouds had parted and
the stars shone. Ivan -- the killer storm Georges
refused to believe would come here -- was on its
way north, where it would cut a path of
destruction through the Gulf Coast of Florida and
Alabama. It would wear itself out over the
mountains and valleys of the Southeast, until by
the time its remnants reached Connecticut, its
savagery would weaken to a heavy rain. Ivan was
blamed for least 45 deaths, 16 in Florida.

Georges looks now for a calm, a time he and his
son can say their nightly prayers and read from
``Why a Son Needs a Father'' without worrying
about the coming day.

If something else looms, something like Tropical
Storm Jeanne that is now rolling toward Florida's
east coast, he'll deal with it when it comes.
.