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Tornadoes in Pinellas took much, but left heart

Published Oct. 12, 2005

If there can be an up side to the sort of tragedy that hit mid-Pinellas last Saturday, it is the way we respond to each other in times of need.

There's the heart-rending story of Ken Riehl, who searched for the body of his 80-year-old mother in the rubble of her mobile home park for more than two days before it was found Monday night. He tearfully thanked the police, firefighters and volunteers who had searched beside him all those hours.

There's Blake Holmes, who cheerfully gave away the contents of his freezer to people who passed by his wrecked home.

There are the residents of Elmhurst Drive in Pinellas Park, keeping their humor and helping each other after the funnel cloud took their homes and their possessions and scattered them over half the county.

And the residents of the Danville neighborhood in Ridgecrest in Largo. Some of them don't have a lot of material possessions, but they have strength and heart. Everyone is pitching in to help those who were hit by the tornado.

There are the volunteers searching for hurt or missing pets and making sure they get treatment, plus free room and board at the SPCA.

There are the warm and caring school counselors and teachers who helped children deal with the trauma after they arrived at school Monday morning. Some even called their students over the weekend to make sure they were okay.

Willie and Helen Harris of Largo have a tremendous mess to clean up after the funnel cloud left wreckage from a nearby mobile home park all over their property. But in the midst of the overwhelming work, they stopped to find dry clothes for a neighbor who was a victim of the storm.

There are the police officers, firefighters, medical workers and other government employees who labored long hours to help the victims of the storm and protect what remained of their property.

Some unemployed people forgot their own problems and went to Pinellas Park and Largo to volunteer their time.

There's Don Walker, owner of a roofing company, who is covering gaping roofs with felt free of charge, and there are all of the other business owners who are donating food and other supplies to the victims.

Insurance adjusters poured into the damaged neighborhoods and dispensed comfort and sympathy along with checks.

There are all of the anonymous volunteers whose names we don't know cleaning up yards, patching walls, handing out meals and drinks, comforting victims, and generally helping people get their lives back in order.

A roaring, black cloud whipped through Pinellas County on Saturday. It brought so much pain and blew away so much that was precious to people.

But it also brought us a reason to forget about the economy, the messy presidential campaign, the large and small irritations of everyday life, and the feelings of negativism in our country today, and to focus on the really important things: life and love and caring.

And though we live lifestyles that often isolate us from our neighbors, the tornado taught us that we still are good people who know how to take care of each other.

Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times.