-- The paths of hurricanes Charley and Frances crossed each other near the home of a small citrus farmer in central Florida named John Blackwelder. Meteorologists drew an X on state maps -- and Blackwelder learned he lived in a very unlucky place.
Early Sunday, Hurricane Jeanne roared through the same area. The odds of this happening were incalculably small, but the statistical wonder gave little cheer to this small town.
"It's certainly been a shock to go 44 years without a hurricane and then have three in six weeks," Blackwelder, 63, said in an interview at his split-level ranch home.
All the storms were deadly, he said, but Jeanne was the worst: Even without going to see one of his groves at nearby Dundee, Blackwelder knew half his oranges would be lying on the ground. Most of the hanging fruit would be scarred and would have to be sold cheap.
As Floridians start to dig out from multiple hurricanes, Haines City has earned the distinction of being one of the unluckiest towns in an unlucky state. Blackwelder is a religious man, but he has not asked himself whether the weather is trying to tell him something: The constant hunt for fresh water, batteries, flashlights and gasoline has left him too exhausted to ask such questions.
The road to Blackwelder's home on Sunday looked as if several hurricanes had just come through. The inaptly named Orange Blossom Trail from nearby Orlando was covered by a carpet of branches, leaves and fallen road signs. Gusts of tropical-force winds sent stop signs spinning madly. On one side of the road, floodwaters with whitecaps lapped at concrete construction barriers. The sky was gray, and the wind roared in violent gusts that made even heavy cars wobble.
A street sign along the way said Convention Center. Its arrow pointed left -- at what looked like a lake. Close to Haines City, orange-and-white traffic barrels careened across the road, and the few motorists who ventured out slowly slalomed their way around the obstacles. A police cruiser with flashing lights stood at Commerce Avenue to warn motorists that a traffic signal was hanging three feet from the ground, suspended by two cables from its original perch.
Mini-lakes were visible everywhere. Actual lakes had waves. A sprinkler mistakenly left running added to the sogginess of one lawn.
At the Citgo station in historic downtown Haines City, one gasoline-dispensing machines lay on its side, nozzles pointed upward. The golden arches sign at a nearby McDonald's was shredded to its skeletal outline. Store windows were boarded up, roofs were missing shingles, trees stood at fantastic angles.
Blackwelder, who has lived in this small town nearly all his life, and his wife, Marilyn, who was born here, appeared stoic. Sitting in his living room, Blackwelder chose meteorological, rather than metaphysical, explanations.
"Weather runs in cycles," he said. "In the '80s, we had freezes. We haven't had freezes since 1989." A meteorological phenomenon near Bermuda was responsible for the spate of hurricanes, he said.
Blackwelder and his father were both growers. Although he is semi-retired, Blackwelder tends to a grove adjacent to his home and to a second grove at Dundee, 12 miles away.
"Probably half the crop is on the ground," he said. "Maybe more." The 15 acres near his home usually produce about 500 boxes of fruit per acre, or 7,500 boxes per season.
Green and orange fruit lie thick on the ground, and Blackwelder estimated this grove will produce no more than 1,000 boxes in all.
The grove in Dundee was meant to produce fresh fruit, but the hurricanes had probably done so much damage that the oranges would have to be sold as juice, which would fetch a lower price. Blackwelder expected to file an insurance claim, which could reimburse him as much as 75 percent of his loss.
Charley was a narrow, fast-moving storm. Blackwelder's groves were largely spared, but there was extensive damage a mile down the road. Blackwelder recalled sighing in relief.
"It makes you think you're living right," he said.
Then Frances arrived. It was huge, produced a lot of rain and moved very slowly, he said. Geography again spared Blackwelder -- his location at the top of a hill meant the water drained away relatively quickly.
"Glad we dodged the bullet again," he told himself.
Then Jeanne arrived. "Here we go again," he said. Of all the storms, Jeanne was the most powerful. "Jeanne was everything -- wind and a lot of rain. It blew rain horizontal for hours," Blackwelder said.
The farmer said he had found it difficult to sleep Saturday night. As Jeanne howled outside, he patrolled the house he had built 24 years ago, looking for leaks.
Blackwelder remembered recently seeing a map drawn by Florida meteorologists with the paths of hurricanes Charley and Frances. They met at an X 15 miles south of his home. "Now we have this one, and it is going to make another cross."
Blackwelder said he had heard another hurricane was forming in the Atlantic. Half to his visitor and half to himself, he said, "This isn't over yet."