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After the storm

Published Oct. 12, 2005

Just as the storm clouds that boiled over Pinellas County Saturday have cleared away, residents who survived the killer tornadoes spawned by the storm are beginning to clear away the debris and pick up the pieces of their lives.

It is a tribute to the human spirit that we can endure terrible tragedy, then pick ourselves up, figure out what needs to be done, and get on with it.

That is happening in dozens of neighborhoods along the Suncoast, for the tornadoes struck in a number of locations. But it is especially apparent in the hardest hit area, central Pinellas County.

People whose homes were ripped apart are rejoicing that their lives were spared. They are picking through the rubble for anything salvageable and celebrating each find even as they grieve over their losses. Neighbors are helping neighbors, and there has been little of the looting that can make recovery from such disasters more difficult.

Many are mourning the three women who lost their lives in the storm. We share their grief for these helpless victims who were taken so quickly.

Florida residents have been distracted this year by Hurricane Andrew, and perhaps forgot that Mother Nature has another, equally dangerous punch. Saturday's destruction is a vivid reminder of how wrong we are to consider hurricanes the only substantial threat to our lives and property.

Florida ranks third in the nation for number of tornadoes, but usually they are small and do little damage. Usually, but not always, and the record shows that in recent years, mid-Pinellas has taken the brunt of the damage from large twisters.

In 1978 a funnel cloud bore down on the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, devastating High Point Elementary School in the middle of the school day, killing two children and injuring scores of others. Two years earlier a tornado flattened mobile home parks along Belcher Road between Ulmerton Road and East Bay Drive. And in 1973, Halloween took on eerie significance for residents of Largo when a tornado destroyed almost 50 homes and damaged several hundred.

Yet mid-Pinellas has the county's greatest concentration of mobile homes, a fact that concerns local governments in the area. It is debatable whether mobile homes could be built to withstand destructive winds even if they were fortified, but it's an issue out of the hands of local officials. Manufactured housing is built according to codes developed and administered by the federal government, not by local building inspectors. Local officials can't even limit the number of mobile homes because of a state law forbidding discriminatory treatment of manufactured housing.

With hundreds of mobile homes lying crushed in the wake of the tornadoes and Hurricane Andrew, it is time for both the federal government and the Florida Legislature to thoroughly review laws that apply to mobile home construction and placement.

The performance of the National Weather Service's Ruskin office also needs to be examined. That office did not issue a severe weather advisory until after tornadoes already had struck Pinellas. Early warning would give residents, particularly those who live in vulnerable mobile homes, time to move to safer shelter.

The losses that Pinellas residents endured will not seem so senseless if we can learn from them how to be better prepared the next time the sky turns black and the wind begins to roar.