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Pinellas Park's response wins praise

With no roof, no windows and no home, Lori Waterstraat has good reason to be in tears.

And she probably would, she said, if city officials had not moved so swiftly to help ease the pain of watching Saturday's tornado cart off everything she owned, including most of her three-bedroom Autumn Run home.

"It could have been total chaos, but they were here like that," she said, trying to snap her fingers without dropping the bag of mangled debris beneath her arm. "The Fire Department, the police, the guys in the trucks; they were all coming by to see if we were okay and what we needed."

Proof that residents are pleased with city officials' efforts to help repair their lives also can be found in Clarence Chumney's front yard, scrawled on what's left of his garage door. The sign reads: "Autumn Run thanks Pinellas Park."

Whatever success city workers have had is due as much to the classroom training they received in Homestead as it is to "a quirk of luck," City Manager Ron Forbes said.

"There we learned what the needs are when entire neighborhoods are destroyed. So we knew what needed to come first, second and third."

Rich Hartman said two weeks in Homestead definitely has made his job easier.

"It kind of desensitized us to all the mess; we didn't have to stand around trying to believe what happened here," said Hartman, a Public Works employee who was removing debris in Autumn Run on Oakhaven Drive. "We were able to come right in here and do our thing because we knew what to expect."

More than 120 Pinellas Park employees, including police officers and Public Works crews, assisted victims of Hurricane Andrew as part of a Florida League of Cities Sister City program. About 30 employees still were working in Homestead on Saturday when the tornado hit Pinellas Park.

Forbes said the city's priority was "to make sure law enforcement was in total control of the areas." Dispatching public works crews and conducting search and rescue missions were next.

He said it was luck that allowed city workers to take care of all three priorities by 11 a.m. Saturday.

"Crews that were already on the street checking drainage problems were able to head over to areas immediately," said Forbes, who lives in Beacon Run and had planned to spend the day with a bowl of soup and his wife.

He also was lucky enough to find a Pinellas Park police sergeant visiting near his home. While the sergeant radioed police to the areas, Forbes used a cellular phone to call in more Public Works crews and clerical staff, who quickly set up an emergency operations center. By Sunday, the center had logged over 150 calls from relatives of Pinellas Park residents. Once those residents were located, workers returned the calls, some which came from as far away as England.

"By late noon, we were into the search and rescue process and on our way into full-fledged debris removal," Forbes said. City workers also distributed more than $20,000 worth of plywood, plastic and other supplies.

"I expected some support, but they have gone above and beyond the call of duty," said Chumney, who used five sheets of the plywood to board up his home. Along with much of his roof and nearly all of his windows, Chumney also lost two cars and a pickup truck.

"It's like the place changes from the devastation hourly; it just keeps getting clearer and clearer," he said as a group of workers removed three tree stumps from his front yard.

Waterstraat said she hopes residents aren't the only ones taking note of Pinellas Park's cleanup efforts: "When I tell people I live in Pinellas Park, they say, "Oh, why would you want to live there?' Now they know why."

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