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Beach city cleans up tornado's debris

The disaster spotlight largely skipped this beach community _ the first hit in Saturday's deadly tornado _ and that suits people here just fine.

"It's kept the sightseers down. In a way it's helped us," police Lt. Roy Anderson said.

As much of the news media and government attention focused on Pinellas Park and Largo over the weekend, city crews and property owners here were able to clear streets and begin sifting through the rubble more quickly.

By Monday morning, all electricity was restored and all streets were open except along 104th Avenue _ the most devastated area _ where city crews still were working to clear debris.

Preliminary reports indicate about 50 buildings _ mostly apartments and small motels _ were damaged by the tornado that roared onto land from the Gulf of Mexico about 11:30 a.m. Saturday.

There were no serious injuries and no buildings were found so damaged that they were condemned, said City Manager Peter Lombardi.

Lombardi said the majority of the hardest hit buildings were decades old and had been built before federal flood protection requirements were in effect. If those structures are more than 50 percent damaged, they will have to be rebuilt, rather than repaired, to comply with the standards.

There was virtually no warning Saturday morning when the tornado slammed ashore near 102nd Avenue and Gulf Boulevard.

Jim and Judy Thomas, who live in a second-floor apartment in the Birdsong Gulf Beach Apartments, 10280 Gulf Blvd., said they were lying in bed when they heard a tremendous banging against the side of the wall.

Thomas said he ran to the window and saw patio furniture being picked up and tossed through the air in a swirling motion. Later, he found a chaise longue dangling from a power line.

"All of a sudden the rain was just going sideways," he said.

About the same moment, the plate glass windows facing the gulf shattered and Thomas said he pulled his wife to a narrow hallway off the bedroom. There, he used his body as a brace against the walls and clutched his wife as the rest of the windows blew out and glass swirled around them.

From there, the storm struck several small motels along Gulf Boulevard, skimmed the Winn-Dixie grocery store and slammed into a row of apartments and condominiums along 104th Avenue. It then damaged a row of apartments and businesses on 107th and 108th avenues and skipped across the water and struck several houses on the Isle of Palms.

At the Fairlane condominiums, 129 104th Ave., Fran Discher had just come from the kitchen and plopped onto a couch when the glass in her sliding glass door splintered and the wind lifted her into the air, said Joe Discher, her husband.

"I dove for her and grabbed her by the ankles and waist and pulled her down," he said.

He then threw her onto the floor of a hallway and fell on top of her. A door to a back bedroom blew off its hinges and landed over both of them, which Discher said may have saved them.

"I looked up and saw the sky," he said.

The roof had been ripped off and all of the windows were gone. Streaks of blood still could be seen Monday on the pale wallpaper and carpet of the hallway.

Discher's boat, a 28-foot pontoon, was lifted, piling and all, into the air by the storm and smashed. Pieces of the boat later were found imbedded in a neighbor's living room wall, five houses down the block.

But by Monday afternoon, residents and business owners were trying to find silver linings.

Peggy Peters, whose father owns the Treasure Island Motel, said most of the guests have chosen to stay despite the damage to parts of the motel.

"We had customers out sweeping around the pool. Can you believe that? I couldn't get them to stop," she said. "They just wanted to help."