Post-Hurricane Stress Leads Man To Death

CUTLER RIDGE, Fla. - Peggy Worthman thought she and her husband had survived the worst of times when they rode out Hurricane Andrew together. They huddled in their home and held hands as the storm roared past.

The toll was severe. Their home was damaged, the furniture business they had built together was leveled and, somehow, Lloyd Worthman was not the same man as before.

The once-cheerful retired Army sergeant became depressed and forgetful, and took to sitting around the house all day in his pajamas.

Less than three weeks later, the 62-year-old lay down on the floor of the couple's home, put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.

Psychiatrists say the terror of riding out a hurricane can leave a person suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, an ailment usually associated with combat veterans. For some, the stress may only increase.

"You have no control in a hurricane - you either live through it or not. It can be so traumatic that people come out in an absolute state of shock. If it's not treated, it can become worse and worse," said Dr. Joseph Zealberg, a psychiatrist and director of the Emergency Psychiatry Mobile Crisis Program in Charleston, S.C.

He treated victims of hurricanes Andrew and Hugo, which slammed into South Carolina in 1989.

Peggy Worthman doesn't know why her husband killed himself; she only knows it had something to do with the storm.

When Andrew struck Aug. 24, the couple took refuge in a spare bedroom in the center of their home. The house shook as doors were blown down and sections of roof were torn away. Worthman sat in a chair wedged against the door, his head in his hands.

"The wind came through here and sounded like a freight train," Peggy Worthman said. "It was a terrible sound, just terrible."

When they ventured out to survey the wreckage, Worthman was shaken and silent.

"He was in shock when he walked out of that room that morning," she said. "He was just a different person."

In the days that followed, Worthman was listless and withdrawn, unable to face the task of rebuilding his home and business.

"I'd say, `Let's go to the store.' We'd get in the car and we'd get almost there, and then he'd say, `Oh, I forgot the keys,' "Peggy Worthman said. "He didn't want to see the place. He couldn't bear it."

Peggy Worthman suggested he see a doctor. He agreed to, but never went.

On the morning of Oct. 12, Worthman seemed in good spirits. He fixed his wife breakfast in bed - oatmeal with bananas.

Late that afternoon, she left the house to run errands. When she returned an hour later, Worthman wasn't around.

As it got dark, she started to worry. She searched the house again, checking the spare bedroom where they had endured Andrew. The door was locked; she had to pry the lock open.

There was her husband, lying in the same spot where he had sat out the hurricane. This time, a gun was lying across his chest.

"I said, `Honey, don't do that!' I grabbed the gun and threw it on the bed. Then I saw the blood."

Peggy Worthman is fixing her home and will try to rebuild the furniture business. But in a year or so, she hopes to move to Pennsylvania. She said she'll never stop wondering why her husband took his life.

"We were only months away from making everything work again," she said. "I just don't know how he ever did this to himself."