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Bush signs order clearing way for federal storm aid

As promised, President Bush formally declared Pinellas County a disaster area Thursday, making both governments and individuals eligible for federal financial aid.

The declaration ends uncertainty about the types of assistance that will be available to individuals whose homes or property was destroyed or damaged by Saturday's tornadoes.

A White House statement issued Wednesday said aid would come to local government for costs of debris removal, overtime pay and damage to government buildings. "Individual assistance may be added if warranted," the statement said.

That changed Thursday. The declaration signed by Bush aboard Air Force One includes programs for individuals too. If qualified, people can participate in programs that will:

Pay rent for as much as 18 months.

Provide small grants for minimal repairs or larger grants up to $11,900 for serious disaster-related needs.

Provide unemployment benefits for workers not qualified for state benefits, such as self-employed individuals.

Offer low-interest loans from 4 percent to 8 percent to cover uninsured private and business property losses.

Other relief programs include crisis counseling and assistance in filing for casualty losses on income tax returns.

Before the Bush signing, disaster officials were scrambling to find a few more tornado victims who might qualify for federal help.

"FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) has told us that to get us over the threshold we need 25 people not insured or underinsured," Pinellas Park City Manager Ronald P. Forbes said.

Only 11 victims who would qualify for federal help had been found Wednesday, and "a few more" were located Thursday, Forbes said.

FEMA officials had said the needs of such a low number probably could be met through relief agencies such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army. Those agencies already are providing help, but some of the federal programs are more extensive and are designed to run longer.

Those interested in participating in these programs can call FEMA at (800) 462-9029, or (800) 462-7585 for the hearing impaired, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week until further notice.

An information center to help people apply for assistance will open today at noon. It is located at 6467 102nd Ave. N in Pinellas Park. That address is in the Pinellas Place Shopping Center at the northeast corner of 102nd Avenue and 66th Street N.

Representatives of government and disaster-relief agencies will direct people to programs that might help them.

Spokesman Robb Waugus said the Red Cross has started case files on 55 families or individuals, which means the agency has helped them with needs ranging from rent money to food to baby diapers.

The Red Cross has opened two service centers to distribute food and other necessities. In Pinellas Park, a center is located in Sacred Heart Catholic Church at 8001 46th Street N. There is also a Red Cross service center in Largo at the Cooperative Extension Service Center, 12175 125th Street N. Both are open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Lola Walker of the St. Vincent De Paul Society said the centers are running low on food. She said they could use donations of canned meats, canned drinks, tuna, peanut butter, baby food and baby diapers.

They also need toasters, toaster ovens, irons, lamps and coffee pots, she said.

Meanwhile, a team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration arrived in the bay area Thursday to begin reviewing events surrounding Saturday's tornadoes. The review, expected to last through the weekend, includes physical inspection of the storm-struck areas and interviews with people who survived the storm and who have been helping victims recover.

The agency's review process started Wednesday with an aerial survey of the damage that confirmed earlier estimates of wind speeds ranging from 150 to 200 mph.

Thursday, team members started their day by talking with Pinellas County emergency management officials.

Despite criticism over the lack of advance warning of the tornadoes, weather service officials emphasized that the review is aimed at gathering information to improve emergency response for the next storm, not at fixing blame.

"This is part of the normal process after a disaster of this type _ to go down into these communities and survey emergency managers and other people," said Tim Tomastik, a spokesman for the Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, parent organization of the National Weather Service.

Tomastik said the team would explain its mission at a news conference this morning and would work through the weekend in the area.

_ Staff writer Charlotte Sutton contributed to this report.