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Emergency response gets mixed reviews

Published Oct. 12, 2005

In some places, residents said the wind from the tornado had hardly died when emergency response teams were clearing streets and helping people cope.

Other places, residents had angry words for the officials they say failed them.

John Wister of 11156 Oakhaven Drive said police and public works crews were on the scene minutes after a tornado hit his house.

"I think they did an outstanding job," he said, "By the time I had checked on four houses, they were here."

He said crews were cutting fallen trees and clearing his street less than 90 minutes after the storm.

Yet, just around the corner at 10879 114th Place N, Bill Harmon and his wife Darla painted a different picture.

They complained they were not told about city-supplied stacks of plywood delivered to the neighborhood, and that no one had been able to instruct them after a helicopter flew over and ordered an evacuation because of a reported gas leak.

Mrs. Harmon said she was sent by a police officer to Pinellas Central Elementary School a few blocks away. There, another officer told her she'd have to leave, she said.

Her husband asked police at three checkpoints for instructions. None knew what he was talking about, he said.

The Harmons said the mix-up rattled their frayed nerves and cost them time in sorting through the wreckage of their house.

City officials, meanwhile, met Sunday morning to praise employees' efforts in the heavily hit Autumn Run and Beacon Run neighborhoods.

"Thank God for what we learned from Homestead," council member Patricia L. Bailey said. About 30 employees, including police officers and public works crews, were recalled Saturday from storm relief work in Homestead.

City Manager Ron Forbes said the city so far had given residents $20,000 worth of nails, hammers and plywood, searched through rubble for injured and missing people, blocked off access to damaged neighborhoods and marked homes that had been inspected.

"One of the reasons we were able to get out there so quickly is because our surrounding communities have been great," he said. By Sunday morning, assistance had come from St. Petersburg, Gulfport, Tampa, Kenneth City, Oldsmar, Safety Harbor and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Forbes said about 482 structures had been damaged or leveled. "Right now, we're looking at about $20-million worth of damage," he said.

David Bilodeau, director of emergency management and communication for Pinellas County, said he was unaware of any confusion or problems in the damaged areas. He speculated some residents might be unhappy because they saw other neighborhoods getting assistance first.

Some storm victims said Sunday afternoon that the American Red Cross had not been visible after of the storm.

A Red Cross mobile canteen, a truck used to distribute food, was in the damaged areas later and served 1,150 sandwiches, sodas and snacks. They will return today.

Red Cross spokesman Robb Waugus said only two canteens were used because three others are returning from South Florida.

Salvation Army volunteers, meanwhile, handed out more than 3,000 meals over the weekend.

"We're going to be here all night. We're going to be here all day tomorrow. We'll be here as long as there's a need," said Sgt. Maj. Gorman Mott, of the Pinellas Park Salvation Army.