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A family struggles to survive

A few minutes before tornadoes savaged the Beacon Run area of Pinellas Park on Saturday, Darla Harmon got a call from her mother-in-law in Largo.

"It was already dark and scary, and she's a recent widow," says Mrs. Harmon. "So my husband and I and Cole, our 8-year-old, drove over to bring her here where she would be safe."

With an ironic little laugh, Mrs. Harmon points to her gutted house, to the ceilings of temporary plywood, to the garage where somehow a foot-thick tree trunk got wedged in beside the family boat.

Then she leads a quick tour of her house: shows the bathroom where a tree branch crashed through the window and lodged in the shower stall; a neighbor's azalea bush that ended up in the closet; the back yard where the wonderful old oak tree used to be, alongside the 18-foot, above-ground swimming pool that the family is still looking for.

"We drove back from Largo through the rain and winds, through the destruction in other neighborhoods, realizing how terrible it was, how easily it might have been us, how lucky we were. And then we got home, and we weren't lucky at all."

In the hour they were gone, tornadoes ravaged their neighborhood _ and then went away. The Harmons were left with almost nothing.

"We were renters, and never bothered with rental insurance," Mrs. Harmon says. "We rented unfurnished, and our furniture is gone and most of our clothes.

"At first, we thought the stuff in our bureaus would be all right. Later, we opened the drawers for a closer look and things were full of tiny slits from broken glass. We haven't had time to see what we can keep."

The Harmons live _ or lived _ on 63rd Way, on one of the most devastated blocks in the county. Destruction is all around them.

Most of the ruined furniture has been dragged out of the houses and carted away _ or abandoned in great piles of rubble on the streets. Trucks line the streets. Cleanup crews are everywhere. Residents and their friends trudge over front yards, hauling away debris.

AT&T Paradyne, where Mrs. Harmon has worked for 15 years "pushing paper around," sent out five men and a truck to gather the family's belongings and haul them to safety.

"The company has been wonderful. They gave me this week off with pay to get organized and an apartment to live in till we get on our feet again."

The disaster has shown people what is important and what is not.

"Before we weren't speaking to one of the families across the street and they weren't speaking to us. Some dumb little quarrel," Mrs. Harmon says. "Since the tornado, we're in and out of each other's houses every day."

Mrs. Harmon is a small, quick woman trying hard to hold back her tears. "Every time I come back and see the place, it gets harder. After all, this is our home. We lived here."

She looks around at the devastation. "I still can't believe it. This is the kind of thing you see on TV happening to other people. I can't believe it's happening to us."

She hugs her daughter Kristy, 12. The girl looks troubled. She talks about Sambecca Shotts, who was killed by her falling garage roof during the tornado. "(She lived) just half a block away," she says. "She was the mother of one of my three best friends."

"This has been a terrible year for our family," Mrs. Harmon says. "First my father-in-law died. Then my husband got laid off from work. Then we found out Kristy is going to need an operation in a few years. Now this _ we don't even have a home anymore.

"But we'll be back _ right here. We've already talked to the landlord, and he wants us back. And this time we'll buy the house."