Sunday, February 25, 2018
News Roundup

Swimming against the storm to save a fleet

HUDSON --The water level at the shrimp docks had risen to Martha Beneduci's neck. Saltwater whipped by 50-mph winds stung her face.

A powerful storm had pushed massive amounts of water into the coast. The docks had become a lake swelling into the streets and homes of this Pasco County fishing community.

Beneduci saw the taut lines of a half-dozen fishing boats straining against the rising water.

With the livelihoods of her neighbors at stake, she swam in darkness from boat to boat, slackening the ropes so the small crafts could adjust to the 6-foot-high surge.

For two hours she battled nature, fatigue and a tangle of rope.

Just before daybreak, an exhausted Beneduci climbed from the chilly waters and into her boat.

The "storm of the century" did not take her life that day, but it took most everything else.

• • •

They called it the "no-name storm'' because in March 1993 only hurricanes got names. By the time its effects were measured it became the "storm of the century.''

At one point the storm extended from Cuba to Nova Scotia. It packed winds that gusted to 144 mph, dumped 56 inches of snow in one area and drowned more people than hurricanes Hugo and Andrew combined.

Forecasters predicted a bad storm, but no one expected the damage that followed.

It killed at least 270 people, 44 in Florida.

And it forever changed the lives of survivors like Beneduci.

• • •

March 13, 1993, was a busy day for Beneduci and her husband, Al.

They worked at the docks, selling grouper and hauling triggerfish into the icehouse.

A storm was coming. It was reason for caution, she said, but not concern. Storms are a part of life in coastal Florida.

They had a fishing boat offshore, so Al radioed the captain to return to the docks. By sunset, as the skies darkened and the winds picked up, the boat had not arrived.

At midnight, and again after a few hours of sleep, Martha radioed the crew of the boat, Polyester. No answer. She roused Al and the two of them headed to the docks, just blocks away.

Conditions had dramatically deteriorated.

Winds were gusting more than 60 mph. The street had become part of an expanding lake. Water seeped through the floorboards of their pickup.

By the time they reached the docks and their main boat, Capt. Al, the water was nearly up to their necks. The Polyester was docked.

Al climbed aboard the Capt. Al as Martha remained in the water, swimming from the nearby marina office to the boat, salvaging anything she could.

As she saw the boat lines straining, she knew the ropes had to be loosened or the boats likely would be ruined.

Beneduci, 59, grew up a farmer's daughter near Lake Erie. She learned to swim in a community pool. But years around the sea had made her a strong swimmer.

The next two hours were chaos. Winds strengthened, slapping waves of saltwater against her face. Debris and tree branches sailed by.

She was amazed to see palmetto bugs clinging to tiny rafts of driftwood. Strange, she thought, how things find a way to survive.

Two hours later, the boat lines slackened, she climbed out of the water and into the boat, cold and shaking.

As dawn broke, she woke and watched water lapping over the tops of nearby mobile homes. She turned on the TV to hear a reporter's voice booming:

"Possible flooding in Pasco County."

• • •

The captains of the two fishing boats, Polyester and Dry Bones, resolved to ride out this storm together.

That ended when the two-person crew of the Polyester got a call from the boss. Time to come in. No excuses.

Dry Bones anchored in the Gulf of Mexico, 80 miles from shore.

The power of the storm was too much. It split the shrimp boat in half, spilling its crew into the churning sea.

Weeks later, pieces of a ship — and a body — were found floating off Madeira Beach .

The Beneducis led a memorial parade of boats into the gulf, the gulf calm and the sky clear.

Words were spoken. Tears were shed. There were no ashes.

• • •

Unsecured boats were bunched together like toys at the end of a swimming pool. Some wound up in neighborhoods and streets.

Coolers and trash were everywhere.

The water destroyed much of the marina equipment and warped the docks, requiring expensive repairs.

The Beneducis put every cent they had into rebuilding the marina. Al was sick and getting sicker, but they no longer could afford the bottled oxygen he used.

The business struggled to get by for years. In 2005, Al died from an infection after a long bout with pulmonary disease. He was 68.

That same year, Beneduci closed the Hudson Shrimp Docks. At last, the storm of the century began to loosen its grip on her life.

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