Hurricane Maria left a trail of death and destruction and continues to impose extreme hardships to those living in its path — and it also offered the Zloty family of Land O’ Lakes, dramatic reminders of the power of faith, the fragile nature of life, and the importance of gratitude.
Hurricane Maria’s impact on Colleen and Martin Zloty’s family began on Sept. 18 when they heard a hurricane was building strength near the island of Dominica, where 22-year-old Justin Zloty was in his first year at Ross Medical School.
Knowing that a hurricane was brewing, Colleen turned on The Weather Channel when she arrived home from her job as an instructional assistant at Sand Pine Elementary School.
At that point, Hurricane Maria was a Category 2.
By 7 p.m. it had ramped up to a Category 5 and was headed straight toward Dominica.
In a national news report, NBC News meteorologist Bill Karins characterized Hurricane Maria as one of the fastest-intensifying hurricanes in recent history. He said it strengthened so rapidly that those in its path didn’t have time to get ready.
As Maria churned, Colleen and Martin’s concern grew.
“We were texting back and forth with him,” Colleen said. “I said, ‘You know, your roof is not going to hold for a Category 5 Hurricane. It has winds of 160 mph.’”
Justin responded that he was in a concrete block building with strong walls, that had weathered storms.
Colleen warned: “This is getting really strong now. It’s serious. You need to know of another place you can go.”
Justin replied: “If it gets real bad, I’ll go downstairs to a neighbor.”
As Maria approached, Justin told his mom: “It does sound like they say. It’s like a roaring train.”
Then, they lost contact.
“We’re trying to give him advice. Do this. Do this. Do this.
“Then all of a sudden, no contact. And then you think, ‘OK, maybe he’ll get back online. Maybe they’ll re-establish power,” Martin said.
Their last communication was about 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 18, Colleen said.
“It was silent for two days,” Martin said.
Fears mount as Maria strengthens
While his parents worried in their Land O’ Lakes home, Justin’s apprehension was increasing in his Dominica apartment.
“All of a sudden, the power went out and the water stopped working and the Internet went out,” Justin said.
When a corner of his ceiling popped down and broke. Justin hid under a table for protection.
The third-floor apartment started flooding. Justin worried he could get electrocuted if the power went back on.
“I was really scared,” he said.
When more ceiling began falling, Justin decided it was time to leave.
He ran downstairs — clinging to a railing as winds whipped him about.
He stayed overnight with his landlord and his landlord’s wife.
“I continued to hear trees snapping and aluminum things just flying around.
“Around 6 a.m., the storm had settled down,” Justin said.
He decided to check on his apartment. It was flooded, his belongings were strewn about and the roof was gone.
He packed some clothes and food and headed to Ross’ student center, where he’d been told a roll call would be taken.
Normally, the student center is a 10-minute walk from Justin’s apartment.
But he couldn’t take the usual route. The area was unrecognizable. Trees were snapped. Bark was blown off. Power lines were down and buildings were damaged or destroyed.
When he arrived at the student center, it was chaos.
He was stuck there, waiting for the roll call and to find out what would happen next.
There was no running water, so he bathed and washed his clothes in the river. He slept on the floor.
Meanwhile, his parents still had not heard a word.
“That was terrible,” Colleen said. “Who could survive? I knew that the roof was not going to hold.”
The Zlotys, who attend First Baptist Church in Land O’ Lakes, relied on their faith.
“We were praying and praying. That’s how we got through it,” Colleen said. She called a friend and asked her to pray for Justin.
Her friend got a prayer chain going.
“These are ladies — they are on their knees when they’re praying,” Colleen said.
“It just wrenches you,” Martin said. “The mind would go crazy: Is he hurt? Is he calling out for help? Is he alive?
“So, then you say, ‘Lord, I know you are there. This is all in your timing. I know you’ve got this under control.’,” Martin said.
Colleen added: “I kept thinking about that verse, ‘All of the days ordained for me are written in your book, before one of them came to be.’ It’s in Psalm 139:16.”
She continued: “God knows what’s going on. He’s got a plan for Justin. I’ve loved having him for my son, and I wanted to still be able to treasure and find great joy in the years I’ve had with him, not let the thought of all this grief, overwhelm that.”
While waiting, they worked
Martin, a nuclear medicine physician at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital, said he knew working would help keep his mind occupied.
Colleen went to her job because she wanted to honor Justin, who had encouraged her to do the work she does.
The wait, however, “was really agonizing,” Colleen said.
Martin replayed his emotions during that time.
“You go back and you think of all of the baby pictures. All of the times you were with him. Even the last conversation you had with him, you think, maybe that’s all there is now.
“You start to come to grips: Do I have to say bye to him? And, how do I deal with that?” Martin said.
Finally, on Sept. 20, they found out Justin was OK.
“As soon as I heard, I just started crying,” Colleen said.
Martin added: “I was just, ‘Thank you, Lord.’”
That gratitude hasn’t flagged.
“I’m still thanking the Lord every morning on my way to work. It had been just begging the Lord to spare his life,” Colleen said.
Justin’s return to Land O’ Lakes started with a taxi ride on Dominica to catch a ride on a pirate cruise ship that took 12 hours to make a trip on rough waters to St. Lucia. Then, it was another long taxi ride to catch a chartered flight to Miami.
Finally, he flew on a commercial jet to Tampa International Airport.
Since returning to Land O’ Lakes, Justin has been enjoying time with his parents, and his three brothers, Joshua, 24; Weston, 18; and, Daniel, 15.
Martin and Colleen said they’re grateful Justin is safely home, but they realize how terrible the conditions are for people in Dominica, Puerto Rico and other places ravaged by Hurricane Maria.
Justin understands, too.
“I was able to fly away from that island and come home here. But the island people, they live on that island. That’s their home,” he said.
Published Oct. 11, 2017