Plant manager Ed Judy sent home most of Coastal Building Systems' 30-person Saturday shift minutes before a tornado ripped through the building and a nearby lot, destroying about 30 portable classrooms that were destined for hurricane-torn Dade County.
It was raining and blowing too much to continue working. All but four people had left the plant before it got much worse.
The tornado tore open Coastal's facility on 62nd Street N and swept through rows of finished portable classrooms set in an open storage yard around the corner, across from Pinellas Park High School. Some were flattened, while others were intact but turned on their sides.
Company officials estimate they lost $500,000 in portable classrooms and other modular buildings and trailers. Total damage at the business is estimated at about $1.5-million.
"The saddest thing is we have been a prime supplier for Dade County for three years," said Rich Dalia, Coastal's general manager.
Some of Coastal's portables already had been called to hurricane duty, and others likely would have followed, Dalia said. Now, Coastal workers and a private contractor will have to scramble to get the plant reopened and the portables rolling off assembly lines again. They're shooting for two weeks to reopen.
Dade school officials said they expect more than 600 such classrooms to replace structures destroyed by the hurricane. Not all would come from Coastal.
Many of the Coastal portable classrooms were ready to be trucked southward. Trucks came Saturday morning for two of them, Judy said, but the drivers chose to wait a day because of high wind and driving rain.
When they returned Sunday, they couldn't even find the two portables.
"They were unrecognizable," Judy said. "It just looked like a bomb went off in the storage yard."
Judy and three other workers had remained at Coastal just a few minutes too long. They barely made it down a flight of stairs before the roof caved in. The only one hurt, however, was Tom Webster, who was caught outside, lifted in the air and thrown against a chain link fence before two trees fell on him.
Webster was in stable condition Monday at Metropolitan General Hospital with broken ribs, a lacerated liver and a collapsed lung.