LARGO — Ridgecrest Park, significantly damaged in the March 31 outbreak of severe storms in Pinellas County, reopened to the public for the first time Saturday. But in some other spots damaged by hopscotching funnel clouds or high water, the cleanup continues.
The wild weather hit the Largo area near Seminole Boulevard and along Ulmerton Road particularly hard.
"After the storm came through, we sent rangers and other facility staff to survey the damage at all the parks,'' said Lyle Fowler, operations manager with the Pinellas County Parks and Conservation Resources department. "With Ridgecrest Park, we realized we needed to close it immediately for cleanup.''
The 5-acre park on Ulmerton Road is known for its freshwater fishing pier and baseball field. Although the picnic pavilions, pier and playground did not sustain damage, approximately 30 trees needed to be removed from the park before the county would deem it safe for public use. The toppled trees included laurel oaks, live oaks, tupelos and slash pines.
The biggest chore was to remove a live oak tree that fell into a boarded-up building in a fenced-off area of the park, Fowler said. "Even though the public doesn't use the building, we still needed to get that tree out of there,'' he said.
Coincidentally, as the storm pounded the small, regional park between 11 and 11:30 a.m. March 31, Fowler and other members of his department were monitoring the weather from their office, which is at 12520 Ulmerton Road.
"We saw that the storm was bad, but little did we know that at Ridgecrest Park such substantial damage was possible,'' he said. "It was incredible.''
Although Ridgecrest Park suffered the most severe damage of all the Pinellas County parks, at Brooker Creek Preserve in East Lake workers are removing loose branches from trees and cleaning up debris on the boardwalk that blocked the regular entry to the preserve's education center.
"Until we're finished cleaning up fallen branches, people are getting into the education center by the service entry,'' Fowler said.
Tarpon Springs flood victim decries drainage
After the storm blew through Pinellas on March 31, dumping torrential rains, Angela Saunders was left with murky calf-high water in her Grosse Avenue home in Tarpon Springs.
She's still trying to recover. Anything that touched a floor in her home became saturated and must be replaced — her furniture, shoes and clothes.
She and her family have spent several nights at the Red Roof Inn.
Saunders' home flooded during a storm in 2009, after which she also had to replace her furniture and many of her belongings. She now has to replace those items again. Saunders is looking to the city of Tarpon Springs for help.
"I'm dealing with so much," Saunders said. "I shouldn't have to go through this. The drainage system is outdated."
Paul Smith, Tarpon's Public Services director, said the city just started working on its seven-year stormwater management plan. Smith said that during the storm, workers took notes on where much of the water was settling. He said that will help the city tweak the plan for those particular areas.
Woman ponders future in wake of tornado
Virginia Armstrong, 91, narrowly escaped her Indian Rocks Beach home with her life March 31 when an apparent tornado struck the apartment building she owns at 2 Gulf Blvd., destroying her second-story apartment.
Her daughter, DeeJane Armstrong, who was watching the Weather Channel in her St. Petersburg home, called her mother to warn her that a tornado was about to hit Indian Rocks Beach. Virginia was descending the stairwell to flee the building when the roof came off.
The days since have been trying for her mother, DeeJane said, as the reality of losing her home becomes clearer.
"She's doing fair," DeeJane said. "It's sinking in."
Virginia is staying with her daughter for now, but she hopes there's a way to salvage the first floor of her building, which had three units she rented to tenants. If so, she could live there and still get some rental income.
Virginia, who has lived in her apartment since 1970, considers Indian Rocks Beach her home and is determined to find a way to return. For now, the building is condemned, and the future is not clear.
"It's very hard to start over at 91 years old," DeeJane said.