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Storm victims seek shelter at schools, hotels

Published Oct. 12, 2005

More than 200 residents were left homeless by Saturday's storms, the Red Cross estimated, and several dozen of those residents trickled into emergency shelters throughout the day.

"Some came to us with nothing but the shirts on their backs," said Anne Stuckey, principal of Bauder Elementary School, which was being used as a shelter in Seminole. "Some had no vehicles or couldn't get to them after the tornadoes and were picked up by one of our school buses. Others drove here in cars that had all the windows knocked out."

Many without a roof over their heads found shelter with friends, relatives or neighbors, while others _ including those who made their way to emergency shelters _ ended up in hotels Saturday night.

Within hours of the disaster, insurance companies began booking blocks of rooms in nearby hotels for customers whose homes were rendered uninhabitable.

By 3 p.m., displaced residents, many still in shock and crying, began streaming into the La Quinta Inn at 7500 U.S. 19 N, a 117-room hotel just blocks from the devastation.

"A lot of them are really upset," said Patrick Kelley, the hotel's service desk operator, on Saturday. "I've had several people crying. One lady was the wife of a police officer in Pinellas Park. Her husband had to go to work and their house was destroyed as well. She was really upset."

Just hours before, Debbie Prichard had been sitting in her home, awaiting her husband and son's return from the library. They returned just moments before the storm tore through her neighborhood.

"We raced to the back of the house and huddled in a doorway," Prichard said. The storm tore through the home, leaving a gaping hole in the roof. Prichard ended up in the La Quinta Inn, her room paid for by her insurance company.

She considered herself relatively lucky. "Some of my neighbors lost everything _ the houses just completely flattened. It's bad, real bad."

A total of 26 people sought shelter at Bauder Elementary, Stuckey said. But shelter workers arranged for accommodations for all of them by the time darkness fell Saturday, thanks in part to the generosity of the Holiday Inn Central on U.S. 19 and the Thunderbird Beach Resort on Treasure Island.

The Thunderbird cut room rates from $52 to $30 a night for displaced persons, while the Holiday Inn Central offered storm victims rooms for two nights for free. In all, the hotels handed out keys to about 30 rooms for persons shuttled over from the emergency shelters.

"At a time like this, you can't look at someone who's lost their home and charge them for a room," said Fred Bishop, an official with the holding company that owns the Holiday Inn.

About 22 people sought shelter at the Nina Harris Elementary School in Pinellas Park, many of them elderly residents of the hard-hit Park Royale Mobile Home Park, said area school superintendent Betty Ivey. She said shelter workers were spared the chore of cooking when a local Pizza Hut delivered free pizzas to the school.

Bauder was closed by the Red Cross after all those without a home were placed elsewhere. Officials at Nina Harris, after placing most of their homeless at the Holiday Inn, also thought that shelter could be closed by late Saturday night.

Seven people initially sought shelter at the Chapel on the Hill, 12601 Park Blvd., said Joanne Cherry, including "a couple who had been married 51 years and had lost everything."

Saturday night, workers at the United Church of Christ chapel had found temporary homes for all but 85-year-old Russell Skinner and his poodle, Kelley. Cherry was trying to place them in a retirement home run by a friend.

Skinner is handicapped and has no family in the area, and his mobile home was destroyed by a twister.

"I guess I don't know where I would have ended up if emergency workers hadn't come to get me and brought me here," Skinner said.

_ Staffer writers Chris Lavin and Sabrina Miller contributed to this story.