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Order to leave came late

In every Tampa Bay area county but one, emergency officials had issued mandatory evacuation orders to mobile home residents by 2 p.m. Saturday.

Pinellas waited until 11 p.m., when many residents were preparing for bed or already asleep. Just three shelters were opened before 1 a.m., when the county opened three more.

The late decision meant some people were awakened by police and firefighters on bullhorns ordering them to board school buses in the middle of the night. Others had no idea of the imminent danger and stayed behind to face the strong winds that swept through their parks Sunday.

Lester and Arlene Puttkammer, who reserved hotel rooms in Clearwater before hurricanes Charley and Frances hit, said no one came to their Teakwood Village mobile home park in Largo to tell them to evacuate.

"Pinellas goofed up this time," said Lester Puttkammer, 69.

The couple said they found out about the evacuation order from television. But none of the shelters were in Largo, and they couldn't determine the addresses of the shelters that were open. They tried calling one shelter, but couldn't get through.

"I didn't want to drive over and then find out it's full," Puttkammer said. "By the time we thought we could go, they said stay."

So the couple spent the day watching pieces of their neighbor's roof fly across the street.

"This is the worst," said Arlene Puttkammer, 67.

Alan Sak, 64, who lives in Hollywood Mobile Home Park in St. Petersburg, said he was awakened at 2 a.m. and told to move to John Hopkins Middle School. The short notice didn't give him time to make arrangements for his cat, Baba Jaga, or his dog, Cricket.

"I wish they had given us more time," Sak said. "I'm really worried about my pets, but at least they're together."

Pinellas officials defended the timing of their evacuation order.

They said there was no need to act until the National Hurricane Center revised its projected path of Jeanne at 11 p.m. Saturday, and that despite the early morning hustle, they had plenty of time to usher people into safe shelter. Before noon Sunday, they counted nearly 3,000 people in shelters.

"It was less than ideal conditions to give the order," County Administrator Steve Spratt said. "But in retrospect, it was enough (time)."

Spratt said the county's disaster advisory team _ which includes officials from the county, cities, school district and relief agencies _ discussed a mandatory evacuation Saturday during a 5 p.m. conference call. But relying on wind projections from the National Hurricane Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, they decided to wait.

Those experts predicted the storm would pass just north of Pinellas and deliver winds of up to 58 mph.

Before the 5 p.m. call ended, the disaster team members agreed that if the storm changed tracks, they would need to hustle in the early morning hours.

Spratt called the forecasts "the best science available" and said the disaster team has to rely on those forecast tracks and be prepared to adjust.

"It's a difficult balancing act," said Spratt, who learned at 11 p.m. that the hurricane had not turned as expected. Instead, it continued west toward Pinellas.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who participated in the 5 p.m. conference call, said he supported the decision to wait.

"All of the cities were on board," Baker said. "It was the strong recommendation of the county to wait, and I deferred to their expertise."

Within minutes after mandatory evacuations were ordered, firefighters and police officers were driving through neighborhoods with bullhorns announcing the order. About 25 school buses followed, picking people up and taking them to safety.

Baker was out until 4 a.m., helping city crews spread the word.

Even though forecasts during the day Saturday had the storm turning away from St. Petersburg, Baker had prepared city workers for the worst.

"I said, "They've been wrong every single time so far,' " said Baker, referring to forecasters. "Let's not assume they're right this time."

Wayne Huntington, 46, who lives in the High Point mobile home park near Largo, said he was awakened at 1 a.m. and told to evacuate.

"At 1 o'clock in the morning, where are we going to go?" he said. "The shelters were open but most of them were filled up."

His cat, Izzy, and chihuahuas, Chilli and Maxi, had nowhere to go. Since he is a transplant from New Hampshire, he doesn't have relatives in the area. And there wasn't time to find a hotel room.

So Huntington, his wife, and 10-year-old son decided to stay put. "We figured that when things started flying off, we would go," he said.

The firefighters' bullhorns never reached Gertrude and Stacy Daigneau. They were up, watching a movie until midnight. Stacy Daigneau, 83, has emphysema and depends on an oxygen supply.

On Sunday morning, the couple was stunned to learn that they had been ordered to evacuate their mobile home at the Treasure Village park in St. Petersburg. The Daigneaus would have gone had they known there was an order.

"They haven't told us anything," Gertrude Daigneau, 83, said. "A great big bus was here last night, but I think that was for people who wanted to go."

Some people chose to stay.

At Clearwater's Doral Village, John Demasi simply closed the shutters when he heard the fire department's loudspeaker early Sunday morning.

Demasi and his wife heeded evacuation orders during Hurricane Charley, but they decided to stay put this time. He didn't see many people in his community leave, either.

"I'm not that worried this time," Demasi said. "If the news gets worse, we'll leave."

By 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Pinellas emergency manager Gary Vickers warned that conditions had worsened in Pinellas and that people should stay put. The safe time to evacuate had passed.

Times staff writers Megan Scott and Catherine Shoichet contributed to this report.