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Sean Kirst: For Western New York expat, Irma only fortifies hard choice

PALMETTO, FLA. – Salliann Burgio, standing Thursday amid the aftermath of a hurricane, could describe the exact moment when she stepped away from a lifetime in Western New York.

It was six or seven years ago, at a barbecue in the City of Tonawanda, not far from River Road. A friend introduced her to Butch Glasgow and Marie Belote, residents of Florida.

Burgio, who lived in Lockport at the time, dreamed out loud about someday settling in Florida. She expressed familiar concerns. She was weary of snow. She didn't like New York taxes.

Glasgow, who's from Grand Island, runs the USA Fence Co. He owns hundreds of rental properties in his adopted state.

"You come down," he told Burgio, "and I've got work for you to do."

Burgio, 58, decided to go. She made the move with her then-husband, although they later divorced. She settled in a solid little house made of concrete blocks in a Palmetto apartment complex she manages for Glasgow, near Bradenton. She also cleans sprawling mansions for wealthy homeowners along the Gulf of Mexico.

It is hard work, but she likes Florida just fine.

She is especially grateful for those concrete walls, after a night spent with Hurricane Irma.

"I prayed to the Lord that He wouldn't let it hurt us," she said.

Burgio thought hard - amid all the hurricane warnings - about fleeing Florida for a few days. She even thought about making another trip to Buffalo, the city where she was born, the hometown she'd visited only a few weeks ago.

Yet she's grown close to the tenants in their small wooden apartments. She didn't like the idea of leaving them alone. Mike Patterson, who lives next door, works at a nearby 7-Eleven. Thin, bearded and often barefoot, he acts more like a relative than a tenant who pays rent. His passion endears him to Burgio: He rescues birds along the waterfront that get caught in fishing line.

Burgio kept stalling about leaving. By Saturday night, she and Jay Schwartzman, her fiance, realized it was too late to get out. Instead, they did their best to get ready. They used plywood and shrink wrap to protect as much of Burgio's little house as they could.

Patterson said he is thankful for that choice. Because of Burgio, he didn't face the hurricane alone.

"I'm poor, I don't care and my closest family lives 1,000 miles away," Patterson said.

That night, he gathered with a group of friends on Burgio's back patio. They were frightened and a little mesmerized. They watched as a strong wind turned into something almost beyond description.

"Everything was gray," said Nick Simpson, another neighbor, "and everything was blowing sideways."

Feeling very blessed, Buffalo native Salliann Burgio, who now lives in Palmetto, Fla., stands on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017 under a sycamore tree that was uprooted by Hurricane Irma near her home. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

He was speaking of the way the wind pulled at the trees themselves.

While the storm grew worse, many neighbors went back to their apartments. Burgio did her best to sleep. Outside, Patterson sat on a box and watched the trees toss in the wind. He fully expected the storm to destroy his wooden house. He felt as if he had little to lose.

But he saw a woman wandering along the road whose car had broken down on the highway.

He led her to shelter. They spent the long night talking. He saw the companionship as a kind of miracle.

After the hurricane, she said goodbye.

Thursday, he wondered if he'll ever see her again.

As for Burgio, she was awakened at 4 a.m. by Simpson. He had stayed up late, unable to turn his eyes from the tumult outside. For an instant, he thought Burgio was in danger. He woke her up, and escorted her to the back door.

The wind had ripped out an ancient sycamore tree, by the roots. It appeared ready to crash with full force upon her house.

Instead, torn from the ground, the tree balanced against another dark object in the air. The wind roared "with a sound like a locomotive," Patterson said.

There was nothing any of them could do. Burgio said some prayers. She went inside and returned to bed.

The next morning, with her dog Tasha, she went outside.

The debris in her yard – trash, branches, pieces of brush – rose to her knees.

She looked up.

The sycamore tree, when it fell, had lodged in the crook of a tall, strong oak.

Mike Patterson, barefoot, amid Irma debris. (Robert Kirkham/The Buffalo News)

If the oak had snapped, both trees would have hit the house.

Instead, they remained upright throughout the hurricane.

Burgio is convinced her prayers were answered.

Thursday, four days after the storm, she had yet to regain power. Patterson told her he'd heard it might be weeks before it's back.

Still, she believes it could have been 1,000 times worse. Palmetto dodged the full brunt of the storm. She was simply inconvenienced, while people in other parts of Florida were driven from her homes.

On a hot September morning, she walked out her back door. Asked if she misses Buffalo, she thought about it and said:

She misses many people she cares about.

Then Burgio looked at Patterson, the neighbor who rescues injured birds, and Simpson, who risked a hurricane to warn her when she was in trouble, and she said Irma only reinforced the choice she made at the barbecue.

"I love this," Burgio said of Florida, standing without fear beneath the tree that didn't fall.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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