IN AN INSTANT, a fury whipped through this community, ripping roofs, smashing windows and peeling away walls. But as homes were torn apart, people in the community came together.
"Everything changed for so many people in a matter of seconds," said Joan Koroleski, 71, whose neighbors came to her aid after her home was destroyed in the March 31 storms.
The storms pelted the Tampa Bay area with hail, rain and vicious winds and damaged more than 150 homes in Largo, most at mobile home parks. One park, Four Seasons Estates near Ulmerton Road and Seminole Boulevard, had about 28 homes damaged.
The National Weather Service confirmed eight tornado touchdowns in the Tampa Bay area that day. A ninth probably touched down in Largo, but NWS meteorologist Dan Noah said it will be another month before the agency finalizes its data.
A month after the storm, some Largo residents have begun repairing their homes, others are waiting to settle their insurance claims, and those whose homes were demolished are wondering what's next for them.
"We don't know what these people are going to do yet," said Bob Mendes, president of the Four Seasons resident-owned community.
One of those people is Koroleski. When the storm hit, she was about to head outside to check on the doves nesting in her carport. She felt a sudden gust of wind and shut her door abruptly. She was thrown into her bathroom as her home was thrust about 20 feet off its foundation.
Within minutes, neighbors were at her door asking if she was okay. Physically, she was fine, except for a cut on her hand. But her treasured brown home with mauve trim was destroyed. Her Florida room was gone. Her 1983 Chevrolet Monte Carlo was wedged between her home and her neighbor's. Her possessions were strewn across her lawn.
"It was my home," said Koroleski, who still drives the Monte Carlo. "I planned to spend the rest of my life there."
The day of the storm, a neighbor stopped by with an offer.
"I have an extra room with a bath," Koroleski recalls him saying. "And you're welcome to stay as long as you need to."
Other neighbors, snowbirds from Nova Scotia who were heading to Canada, said she could rent their home until they returned. She's staying there while she looks for a new home. She hopes to buy one near her old lot.
Koroleski said she's overwhelmed, but touched by the compassion of her neighbors.
"I have to survive and move on and I will," she said.
Toni Lipscomb had sought shelter from the storm in her bathtub. About 30 minutes after the storm passed, she got up the nerve to go outside. Shutters on the back of her home had blown off, taking part of the vinyl siding with them.
Down the road, wind had hacked off the roof and the front of a home.
Around the corner, the storm ravaged Evelyn and Gary LaClair's home, tearing off part of their roof and collapsing their carport on top of their 2004 Chrysler Sebring. Water poured behind the insulation in the family room, drenching their carpet.
Immediately after the storm swept through Four Seasons, many in the 335-unit community didn't realize their neighbors were in trouble, because the storm had concentrated its wrath on only a few streets.
But within minutes, residents in the 55-plus park sprang into action and began checking to see if others were okay. More and more residents congregated in the streets. They helped their neighbors fasten tarps to protect their homes, offered up space in their refrigerators and helped each other clean up.
"Everybody helped each other," Lipscomb said. "There are a lot of us by ourselves and we can't do those things."
By late afternoon, the Salvation Army had set up a kitchen in the parking lot.
"We got the word out with a golf cart and a bullhorn," said Mendes, the community president.
Residents guarded the entrances to keep aluminum vultures at bay until off-duty police officers showed up.
"This storm really scared me," said Evelyn LaClair, 61. "I was glad to see other people were more in control."
By nightfall, many unscathed by the storm had opened their homes to their neighbors.
"We got a list of people who had spare bedrooms," Mendes said. "We managed to get everybody accommodated."
The residents started taking up a collection for neighbors who needed help. The park's Social Activities Club contributed $500 in seed money.
The storm hit other parks, including Grosse Pointe Estates on Ulmerton Road and Oasis Park on Seminole Boulevard.
Four units were damaged at Grosse Pointe, said Janet Diglaw, a snowbird from Ohio. Three can be fixed and one will be hauled away, she said.
At Oasis Park, Stewart and Jill Pounds' 26-foot travel trailer flipped upside down with them inside. Remarkably, they were okay except for some bumps and bruises. The trailer was destroyed and the insurance company bought it, said Stewart Pounds. The couple have returned to their home in Flint, Mich.
"The big thing is we weren't injured severely," said Pounds, 52. "We plan to come back next year. But my wife says we're not camping. We have a cottage rented in Indian Rocks (Beach)."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.