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Tornado relief coming

Officials from all levels of government had the same message Tuesday for tornado victims in Pinellas County: Help is on the way.

Gov. Lawton Chiles flew into St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport on Tuesday and declared a "state of disaster" for Pinellas. He said he would ask President Bush today to do the same.

Last weekend's tornadoes, which killed four and damaged hundreds of homes, show "the awesome destruction that can take place in a minute with no warning," Chiles said.

According to disaster-relief protocol, Chiles' announcement was the first step to funneling federal and state money to tornado victims as early as next week.

The White House has signaled that Bush will declare Pinellas a federal disaster area as soon as Chiles makes the request.

Federal disaster designation means that people with damaged homes can receive checks to rent temporary housing, low-interest loans to rebuild and unemployment insurance if they no longer have jobs. Residents with low incomes can qualify for grants to replace lost possessions. (Potential aid sources, 5B).

Nearly 1,400 houses and mobile homes were damaged by the tornadoes, and 422 were destroyed, county officials estimated Tuesday. Eighteen apartment complexes were damaged and 130 people were treated in hospitals for storm-related injuries.

Most property damage will be covered by insurance and owners won't be eligible for government aid, said Jay Eaker, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

If Bush follows through with a disaster declaration, Eaker said, an intergovernmental team immediately will set up a telephone hot line to begin processing claims for those who are eligible. Within days, an "application center" will open, offering residents one-stop shopping for various aid programs.

Jack Kemp, secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, toured storm-damaged areas of Pinellas Park on Tuesday on his way to a Bush fund-raiser in Tampa. Kemp vowed that the federal government will act quickly.

"Hopefully, we can begin the assistance on almost an immediate basis," Kemp said. "We learned in Hurricane Andrew about red tape. I can imagine the homeowners and residents are profoundly concerned about the level of red tape."

Pinellas Park Mayor Ron Forbes said his city already is setting up phone banks, computers and electricity in a vacant store at 66th Street and 102 Avenue N to serve as the aid application center.

Nearby are the Autumn Run and Beacon Run subdivisions and Park Royale Mobile Home Village, which were devastated. Forbes estimated that only 100 of the 900 homes in those areas escaped damage.

In south Dade, FEMA set up seven disaster centers after Hurricane Andrew. Pinellas will need just one, Eaker said.

If a federal disaster is declared, residents at the application center will meet first with a counselor who will listen to their stories and question them about financial needs. The counselor will direct them to specific agencies and programs, all of which will be represented in the application center.

Like college students registering for classes, residents will get checklists to guide them from one aid station to another, Eaker said.

For days after Andrew, government officials blamed each other for not responding quickly enough while dazed residents went without food, water and sanitary facilities.

Pinellas officials began similar grumbling Tuesday. At 11 a.m. the County Commission declared a local state of emergency and sent a letter to Chiles, asking him to speed up his state disaster declaration.

"What's holding him up?" Commissioner Charles Rainey said. "Are we going to have the same stall with the governor that we had with Andrew?"

Julie Anbender, Chiles' press secretary, said state officials could not act until they finished damage assessments. At 2:30 p.m. Chiles made his announcement, flanked by an entourage of state legislators.

Eaker noted that Pinellas County's situation is different from the quagmire that caused so much finger-pointing after Andrew.

In Pinellas, the Red Cross, Salvation Army and other local agencies have tended well to tornado victims' basic needs, Eaker said. Anybody who needs water or ice can walk down the street to an undamaged convenience store. Housing for displaced residents is plentiful.

Official relief in Pinellas will focus on long-term needs, he said.

Local Pinellas governments have suffered at least $2-million in losses, including damaged schools, employee overtime pay and the cost of debris removal, he said. "And that could merit a (disaster) declaration in its own right."

"As long as you are declaring a disaster for bricks and mortar, you might as well take care of the innocent victims of a natural disaster," Eaker said.

Ultimately, the disaster decision will be up to Bush. FEMA officials won't talk publicly about what they will recommend, Eaker said. "We are bureaucratic cogs. Whether we are thumbs up or thumbs down, the president is going to do whatever he is going to do."

By declaring Pinellas a state disaster area, Chiles empowered the state Department of Community Affairs to overrule normal procedures such as bidding rules and permitting.

"If there is something that Pinellas County needs and the state has the ability to provide it, this executive order gives us the ability to get at that aid quickly," DCA spokeswoman Toni Riordan said.

After his Pinellas visit, Chiles went to Jacksonville, which suffered extensive flooding Sunday from the same storm system that spawned the west coast's tornadoes. When a dike gave way, one mobile home park was inundated, leaving 200 people homeless. Flood damage in northeast Florida could be part of a Bush disaster declaration, officials said.

Kemp said housing vouchers, Farmers Home Administration loans and advances on future Community Development Block Grants to local cities will be made available in the Pinellas Park and Largo areas.

"We're going to send special teams into Pinellas Park and also Largo," he said, promising to provide city officials a menu of programs and application information by today.

"I'm going to personally call the White House as soon as I leave and ask if this can be expedited," Kemp said. "If anybody has a problem we will have HUD officials in Pinellas County to meet on a daily basis."

Help may be

on its way

If President Bush declares Pinellas County a disaster area, here are some federal and state programs that will become available. People who want to make claims can call a telephone hotline or visit a one-stop disaster center, expected to be located on 66th Street in Pinellas Park.

Temporary housing assistance: People who lost housing may receive rent checks at the going market rate. People who were renting get three months rent. Homeowners get four months rent immediately and can receive rent checks for up to 18 months.

Home and personal property loans: Victims may apply for low-interest loans to replace damaged or lost property that is not covered by insurance. This includes houses and personal property.

Individual family grants: Low-income people who cannot repay a loan may receive grants of up to $11,500 to replace personal property, such as furniture and a family car.

Small business loans: Low-interest loans will be available to replace damaged property or inventory.

Disaster unemployment insurance: If you lost a job because of the tornado, you may be eligible for unemployment benefits until your business reopens or until you find another job. Benefits begin immediately and can run for 52 weeks. Self-employed people also can qualify.

Tax refunds: Uninsured property losses can be declared on 1991 taxes, with IRS personnel available to help file the paperwork. Refund checks can arrive in 7 to 10 days.

Veterans benefits: Medical and other benefits may be available to veterans.