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Ivan Survivor Refuses Evacuation Order

July 9, 2005

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) _ Ten months later, Betty Jernigan awakes every night at the same time, and she is still in that water _ that swirling, black, debris-choked soup that took her mother from her, and nearly took her.

``I recreate it every night,″ the 59-year-old Jernigan says, her brown eyes widening afresh with the fear of that night last September, when Hurricane Ivan destroyed life as she knew it.

For nine hours after her Pensacola home disintegrated around her and her 82-year-old mother was swept from her aching arms, Jernigan clung to debris, swallowing the salty, sewage- and chemical-laden water as nails and tree limbs tore at her flesh. For a day after that, she was sure her fiance, like her mother, had perished in the storm.

So why, after such an ordeal, would she chose to stay behind with another monster barreling across the Gulf of Mexico, seemingly hell bent on finishing what Ivan started?

``We’ve been through the worst,″ Jernigan said Saturday as she packed up papers and secured her remaining keepsakes against the onslaught of Dennis. ``It couldn’t get any worse. I don’t know how it could.″

Jernigan and her fiance, Johnny Hawkins, 53, had no qualms about staying in their Grande Lagoon home for Ivan. Just a football field’s distance from the Intracoastal Waterway, the two-story wood house was built to withstand 155 mph winds and had already survived Opal and Frederick. A friend, Zanna Robertson, decided to wait out the storm with them.

What they didn’t reckon on was the 20-foot wall of water Ivan would send through their neighborhood.

Jernigan’s widowed mother, Arvie, had a bad heart and had been bedridden for several years. By the time they knew Pensacola was in Ivan’s crosshairs, the area’s critical care shelters were already full. Besides, she wanted to stay with her daughter.

Around 10:45 p.m. on Sept. 15, the house lost power. Not long after, the windows started blowing in. With water surging into the house, the family had already retreated to the second floor.

Around midnight, Betty Jernigan heard a sound as if jet planes were trying to land on the roof. Then the concrete-reinforced, brick-lined floor began rippling, roiling up and down like a roller coaster. Water began rising in the room.

Betty Jernigan looked at Hawkins, knowing he was always right, and asked: ``Are we going to die?″

Hawkins looked her in the eye and replied, ``No. We’re not going to die. Go get in the bathroom.″

The bathroom was on the north end of the house, away from the winds. While they cowered in the fiberglass shower, Hawkins braced his back against the door, trying to hold out the wind and water. He had time for one last 911 call.

``There’s nothing you all can do for us, I’m sure,″ he told the dispatcher in a surprisingly calm voice.

Arvie Jernigan, always a joker, looked at her daughter and asked: ``Why did you put me at this end of the bathtub? The faucet is sticking in my back. You know I have a bad back.″

But that moment of levity wouldn’t last. Suddenly, the walls began caving in around the door Hawkins was holding up. Seeing that the roof was about to cave in, Hawkins dived on top of the women, hoping to absorb some of the blow.

Within seconds, the wall behind the tub gave way, and the shower stall tipped backward into the churning water.

Hawkins was pushed repeatedly beneath the water, desperately trying to find air pockets under the collapsed roof. Before he knew it, he was separated from the others and grabbed the first solid thing he could find _ a cedar tree.

Within minutes, Betty Jernigan knew that her mother was dead. But she clung to her body with everything in her. Though the night was pitch black, the water around them was filled with phosphorous, and Arvie Jernigan was surrounded by an otherworldly glow.

``I felt real peaceful,″ Betty Jernigan recalls. ``It was a religious experience. ... I saw her face, and it wasn’t stressful.″

Sometime later, Jernigan can’t recall how long, she let her mother go. Robertson couldn’t swim, and the two grasped at pieces of severed roof and wall in a blind effort to survive.

About 4:30 a.m. on Sept. 16, Hawkins lowered himself from the tree and made his way to a nearby home, which had survived relatively unscathed. A few hours later, rescue workers responding to the area of Hawkins’ 911 call found Jernigan and Robertson about 150 yards from the wreckage of Jernigan’s home. They were sitting atop a roof, babbling and hypothermic.

Arvie Jernigan’s twisted body lay nearby.

Ten months later, Betty Jernigan is still recovering from puncture wounds and torn ligaments she suffered during the flood. The insurance settlement on the house is tied up in a family dispute.

The couple are renting a three-story townhome at a country club a couple of miles from the clean-scraped lot that was once their home.

Robertson fled to Arkansas with her mother, unwilling to tempt fate again. But Jernigan and Hawkins saw no point.

``With the storms here, we get so many, you can’t run from every one of them,″ says Hawkins, a brawny 6-footer with a white mustache and clear, blue-grey eyes. ``I’m a firm believer you don’t die before your time.″

They are happy, at least, that Dennis is expected to make landfall during daylight hours. Worried about how their wood-frame town house would hold up to a Category 3 storm, they’re riding out this one in a friend’s brick home about a quarter mile from the beach.

It’s high on a rise where, they hope, the water can’t get them.

Says Jernigan: ``I can’t be in that water again.″


EDITOR’S NOTE: Allen G. Breed is the AP’s Southeast regional writer, based in Raleigh, N.C.

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