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Routine day turns confusing

David Bilodeau took a brief moment between phone calls to reflect.

"No one is wanting for anything," said Bilodeau, who runs the Pinellas County Emergency Operations Center. "I feel that is an accomplishment."

Bilodeau had been on the phone since 5:30 a.m. Saturday, tracking the progress of storms in the area.

The response: nothing serious.

Then came the tornadoes, and Bilodeau was on his way to Largo, to check out one of the damaged areas.

From there, he headed for his offices in the basement of the county courthouse to begin taking the inevitable phone calls.

One purpose of the center is to issue warnings about impending disasters.

But with tornadoes, it's difficult. "Nine times out of 10, with a tornado, you're too late (with a warning)," Bilodeau said. "It happens to us frequently. (Pinellas) is stuck out in the water, so by the time things happen, it's too late."

Alerting the media was no chore. By the time communication specialist Ronnie Goodstein arrived, her phone was already ringing: NBC, CBS, Associated Press . . . then CNN.

"CNN wants to know if there are enough deaths to justify sending a crew down," Goodstein said. "They said if it hits 15, they'll send a crew."

Goodstein was reluctant to issue a death count. "We're still confirming," she said. When pushed, she told reporters there were seven deaths confirmed.

That proved wrong. The count was later switched to four. And then later, three.

"We obviously had some double-counts in there," Bilodeau said, blaming the error on receiving similar reports from different agencies at the same scene.

Bilodeau's job is dealing with agencies, police, fire, ambulances, buses, the Red Cross, etc. His office acts like a giant switchboard.

And in Pinellas County, with its multitude of municipalities, the switchboard can light up.

Hurricane Andrew drew attention to jobs like Bilodeau's. And he said there was plenty to learn from the hurricane.

"We've always had a good command," Bilodeau said. "We're even better now as we study from Andrew."

He said the biggest lesson from Andrew was "you have to have a very rigid line of communication for requesting and obtaining resources."

On Saturday, only three emergency shelters were opened in Pinellas. After a total of 20 people showed up, one was closed.

"The magnitude of injury was not as great as first thought," Bilodeau said.

Late Saturday night, he could not recall any glitches in operation, adding, "but I'm sure I'll hear about some later."

Saturday's operation was labeled a "partial activation." The last "partial activity" was when Pinellas prepared for Hurricane Andrew. In its six years of operation, the emergency center has never been fully activated.