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The Nation

After 4 Hurricanes, Mother Nature Has New Deliveries

June 19, 2005|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Last year came Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. Nine months later came Grace Mae, twins Reagan and Ryan -- and Elizabeth, 7 pounds 7 ounces, born three days ago and doing fine.

"I got an early gift for Father's Day," said Rick Lovell, 28, an air conditioning technician. He believes the child, his first, was conceived when Jeanne, one of the 2004 hurricanes, rolled overhead as he and his fiancee, Jacqueline Callas, waited out the storm without electricity at his home in Port Saint Lucie on Florida's east coast.

Their black-haired, dark-eyed daughter, born at 8:32 a.m. Thursday at Martin Memorial Medical Center in Stuart, Fla., is in good company. Some hospitals in areas traversed by the four hurricanes that buffeted Florida in the summer and fall are reporting a spike in births of 20% or more. The ill winds of 2004, it seems, also brought the stork.

"People are always ready to share their hurricane stories," said Katie Douglas, a certified nurse midwife who helped deliver Lovell and Callas' daughter. "The best one I heard is the hurricane party with the bottle of wine -- and the lights went out. The next thing they knew, they were in our office."

Due in part to the baby boomlet, the Jensen Beach, Fla., group of obstetriciangynecologists and midwives that Douglas works with is trying to boost staffing by adding another midwife, she said.

The first hurricane to plow into Florida was Charley, on Aug. 13. Last month, the number of pregnant woman checking in to Peace River Regional Medical Center in Port Charlotte began climbing. To accommodate the mothers and their new offspring, rooms in the pediatric unit had to be used, said Danielle Dreher, the hospital's marketing director.

"We were so wrapped up in taking care of folks that it really didn't occur to us, the reason for the increase," Dreher said. "One of the nurses remarked, 'You know how these kinds of things happen nine months after a major disaster.' That's when the light bulb went on."

In May of 2004, the hospital in southwest Florida delivered 76 babies. This May, there were 102 births, perhaps a record. "I don't think we'd ever seen triple digits," Dreher said.

On the other side of the state, Kelly Breedlove, director of obstetrics at Holmes Regional Medical Center in Melbourne, said the hospital and a sister facility in Cocoa Beach had been seeing similar increases in births timed to Frances and Jeanne, the pair of hurricanes that landed on Florida's Atlantic coast within three weeks of each other in September.

"In [May] 2004, we had 166 babies, in May of 2005, 199: a 20% increase," Breedlove said. "We had a day last week, we had 18 babies in a day, close to a record. We've had to staff up, bring in additional nurses."

Breedlove said her physicians had warned her to brace for a busy end of June, when pregnancies begun during and after Jeanne would near their term. Martin Memorial in Stuart has the same expectation. By midmonth, hospital spokeswoman Melinda Glasco said, there had been 88 deliveries, compared with 157 for all of June 2004.

"For June, it looks like we will definitely come ahead of last year," Glasco said.

Wayne Griffin, associate director of the Counseling Center at the University of Florida, said the surge in births was due to a basic and predictable human instinct.

"In the face of uncertainty, intimacy is a way we connect with other people," he said. For some people, the mental health counselor said, a departure from normal life, such as fear of nature's fury or being in a power blackout, can serve as a catalyst for closeness.

Unlike most natural calamities, hurricanes typically provide plenty of warning they are coming, giving people the time to prepare but also to worry. When the storms move on, there is generally great relief.

That's what Lovell remembers feeling, he said, at the time that he and Callas, a waitress, believe they conceived Elizabeth.

"There's a sense of comfortability and security that you feel," Lovell said.

In Tallahassee, Florida Department of Health officials have heard anecdotal and news reports about the hurricane babies, but it's too early to have statewide statistics.

Birth certificates are reported by health departments in the state's 67 counties to the state's Office of Vital Statistics, where they are compiled and analyzed.

"We're still waiting to get that data," said Lindsay Hodges, a Health Department spokeswoman.

An unscientific survey, though, showed that not all hospitals in areas of Florida battered by the 2004 storms were experiencing a bumper crop of infants. At Baptist Hospital in Pensacola, a Panhandle city pummeled by Ivan, a Category 3 storm, administrators and doctors had been bracing for a surge in births this month and last. It never materialized.

"With Ivan being so devastating, apparently people had other concerns," said hospital spokeswoman Karen Smith. "When your house is destroyed and you live in a shelter, you are not busy making babies."

In contrast, a weaker, slow-moving hurricane like Frances sets up a different dynamic.

"We were indoors for five days," Breedlove, of Holmes Regional hospital, recalled. "Some people had no power for 12 days. So there was a lot of downtime."

The hurricanes led to 123 deaths in Florida, the destruction of about $42 billion in property -- and now, some of the state's newest residents.

Dreher, of Peace River hospital, said: "After all the stress and the sorrow we went through, it was nice to have that culmination."

*

Times researcher John Beckham contributed to this report.

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