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Tornadoes rip Tampa Bay; 3 killed, hundreds homeless

At least five tornadoes dropped from the sky on an unsuspecting Tampa Bay area on Saturday, killing three people, injuring dozens and blowing almost 100 homes to bits.

Between 150 and 300 mobile homes were destroyed or badly damaged, and 200 single-family homes were damaged or ruined, according to initial damage assessment by Red Cross teams.

The search for bodies was essentially over Saturday night and the death toll was not expected to rise, said David Bilodeau, Pinellas County director of emergency management.

Two people died in the Pinellas Park area, another in a Largo mobile home park. Late Saturday night, the victims' identities had not been made public.

Among the dead:

A female resident of Park Royale Mobile Home Village, who died when her home was driven into a house.

A woman who was killed in her garage just north of Park Royale, probably by falling debris.

An elderly woman in the Indian Rocks Mobile Home Park in Largo, who died when her mobile home flipped.

At one point Saturday, 30,000 homes were without power. By evening, that number had been cut by about half, but Florida Power spokesman Will Rodgers said he expected that some still would be without power today.

Gov. Lawton Chiles was scheduled to tour the damaged areas this afternoon.

Security in the storm-damaged areas, including walking patrols, was in place by nightfall. There were isolated reports of looting, but no arrests and no curfew.

Red Cross officials had planned to open two shelters but indicated late Saturday that neither would be necessary.

Red Cross officials classified the damage Saturday afternoon as a national disaster, making local chapters eligible for help from national offices. The agency, criticized after Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida and Louisiana for responding too slowly, was on the scene Saturday within an hour after the storm.

Random destruction

The destruction in some neighborhoods was shocking.

Dozens of homes in a four-block wide swath through the Beacon Run and Autumn Run neighborhoods in Pinellas Park were destroyed.

In Largo, a tornado destroyed or damaged scores of mobile homes in the Glenwood and Indian Rocks parks, across the street from the headquarters of the county ambulance system.

Both locations resembled SouthDade County after Hurricane Andrew, except the damage was more selective.

In Glenwood, a mobile home park for the elderly, nothing remained of one home except scattered debris. Next door, the walls were missing on a mobile home whose owner had been carried out with a broken arm and leg, yet books still sat on shelves and a mirror hung on the living room wall over an untouched television.

Across the street, other homes sustained minor damage. "I consider myself lucky. Another 50 feet and I've have been like that," said Tony DiMercurio, pointing his cane at the now-empty lot.

"It's unbelievable how fast these things happen," he said. "It happened so fast I didn't even get scared."

Harry Sandy, a 78-year-old resident of Glenwood, tried to leave with his wife, Erma, when a tornado approached. They didn't make it out of the house. The wind tore away one wall of their mobile home and threw them to the floor onto their small dog, Bebe.

Sandy was treated at Morton Plant Hospital for gashes caused by flying glass and wood, then released. He came home with a bandage over his forehead, another across his nose and a bandaged forearm, which he said was ripped open by flying debris. His wife remained in the hospital with a concussion.

The beaches were hammered, too. About 11:30 a.m., a tornado roared ashore near the Treasure Island Municipal Beach and cut a path about a block wide through the beach community, ripping roofs from apartment buildings, blowing out windows and toppling palm trees. Sgt. S.G. Lord of the Treasure Island Police Department said there were no serious injuries.

Pinellas Park police had cordoned off the hardest hit area _ from 102nd Avenue to 110th Avenue and from 58th Street to 66th Street, said police chief David Milchan.

Pedestrians, bicyclists and cars were stopped by police at intersections near those borders and asked for identification. Only residents were allowed to pass.

Several motorists were seen shouting at police over the strict rules _ and police shouted back.

"That's to be expected," said Milchan, as he stood at a command post at Oakhaven Drive and 110th Avenue. "Tensions are high. But we don't need any more people in here. There's too many in here as it is."

There was already evidence of looters before sundown, he said. People who didn't live in the area had been found wandering around, and some property was missing from damaged homes, Milchan said.

A multitude of public agencies tried to make order of the chaos. Pinellas Park police were in charge of the area, with help from St. Petersburg police, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and other law enforcement agencies. Members of the Civil Air Patrol sat on some corners, apparently trying to stop looters.

Even the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was there, parking a truck on one corner of Beacon Run to help people find shelter for their dogs or cats.

Other areas hit

A tornado that touched down in Hillsborough County about noon uprooted trees, knocked down power lines and damaged several buildings. Two minor injuries were reported.

Curtis Hanlon and his family were in their mobile home southeast of Tampa International Airport when the tornado hit. The mobile home was knocked on its side and severely damaged.

"I went outside for a minute and all the trees started to lay down," Hanlon said. "I ran inside and told them to get on the floor and cover the kids. It all happened so fast."

A few hours after the storm, Hanlon and his family were trying to salvage what they could. Furniture, pots and pans and clothes lay in the grass as a light drizzle continued to fall. Sandra Steger, the owner of the mobile home, said it was not insured.

In Pasco County, two tornadoes touched down about 12:30 p.m., said Fred Murphy, director of the county's Department of Disaster Preparedness. Murphy said no injuries were reported, but witnesses in the area called the St. Petersburg Times and spoke about damage caused by the sudden, violent winds.

Bonnie Cataldi of 14718 Battenwood Drive in Hudson reported that large oak trees and a television satellite dish were uprooted by a tornado. Battenwood is a lightly populated area two miles north of State Road 52, just off Hays Road. Cataldi said she witnessed minor damage to the roof of one neighbor's home.

"I ran to the bathroom and hid," Cataldi said. "It was fast, but it scared the pants off of us."

Tornadoes touched down in Citrus and Hernando counties, too, damaging parts of the sprawling Hernando community of Spring Hill.

Officials reported no injuries in either county, but in Spring Hill dozens of homes and at least a half-dozen office buildings _ including a fire station, a church and a retirement home _ sustained considerable damage.

Forecasters said other tornadoes were spotted in Ocala and Daytona Beach as the front moved northeast across the state.

The storm in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico soaked areas from Key West to Alabama and Louisiana, and knocked out power to 30,000 people and caused flooding at Daytona Beach.

_ Staff writers Wendy Lemus, Steve Persall, Bill Adair, Monica Davey, Kevin Thomas, David Olinger, Jenny Deam, Mark Journey, Sherry Robinson, Brian Chichester contributed to this story.

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