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Pinellas County no longer offers sandbags

During the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Debby, numerous Pinellas residents contacted the county asking for sandbags, but were surprised to learn the bags were no longer provided.

Not since 2004.

During that year, when Florida saw heavy rainfall and $17.5 billion in damage from hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, the county realized that sandbags have their limitations.

Now officials urge residents not to rely on them to save their homes from flooding.

County spokesman Tom Iovino said the decision to stop providing the 35- to 40-pound sandbags was based on various observations.

Residents had a 10-bag limit, which isn't enough to block their garages and all their doorways, he said.

According to the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, "Sandbags are for small water flow protection — up to two feet," which is not a likely solution for coastal residents anticipating a strong hurricane.

Also, "if you have moving water, it will be able to pick up the sandbags," said Pete Yauch, the county's director of transportation and stormwater.

Water eventually can seep through the bags, and sandbags must be treated as hazardous and thrown away after they're exposed to potentially contaminated floodwaters. It would be an added inconvenience if residents need to restock after every flood, officials said.

When the county offered sandbags, it created a long line of vehicles and impatient drivers.

"We had traffic backed up on U.S. 19 trying to get sandbags," Yauch said.

In addition, the cost of offering free sandbags was high.

While officials don't know the total amount, Iovino said the county has saved on the cost of labor and equipment since the program was discontinued.

The county has offered a self-service sand site about three times since 2004. Residents must buy their own bags and fill them with sand. If people choose to do that, officials recommend wrapping the rear of a sandbag barrier with a plastic tarp to help keep water out.

Yet, some Pinellas cities do provide sandbags. The Pinellas County Emergency Management website, which explains why sandbags are ineffective, provides a full list of options.

The website says Seminole would provide sandbags to residents in the event of a storm, and most other Pinellas cities would open a self-service site.

Residents are encouraged to protect themselves and their homes by shuttering windows, evacuating if necessary, or using commercial products such as DoorDam, which offers waterproof flood barriers for homes.

"If you want to buy your own sandbags," Yauch said, "then by all means, but the biggest concern we have is a false sense of security."

Diedra Rodriguez can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or drodriguez@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Pinellas County no longer offers sandbags 07/11/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 11, 2012 7:42pm]
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