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Towering oaks tumble like dominoes in storm

When Dwayne Odom and his partner moved from Tampa two years ago, they bought the complete package: a 102-year-old home on a quaint, brick street with majestic oaks all around.

"That was one of things that brought us to this place was the trees _ even though they made us nervous," said Odom, 40.

On Sunday morning, seconds after Odom stepped in off the porch, winds from Hurricane Jeanne tore off a huge section of a water oak behind the house and sent it crashing down onto the two back rooms. The living room and den were ruined, but Odom, Jeff Scott and their two dogs escaped uninjured.

As residents began cleaning up Monday, they waded through mountains of debris and, in some cases, faced serious home damage. With small branches already blown down by earlier storms, entire trees were caught in the winds of Jeanne.

Kathleen Mikell and her boyfriend, Tommy Conely, have spent the past 10 months restoring a 1915 frame house on Howard Avenue, bought through a government home restoration loan. They installed new plumbing, electrical wiring, hardwood floors and beadboard walls. The upstairs attic, formerly uninhabitable, now has a master and guest suite, each with a bathroom.

The couple were set to move into their $135,000 investment this week.

On Sunday, Conely drove by during the storm to check on the roof. He had boarded up the windows for the third time this summer.

But as he and his father were about to pull away, Conely glimpsed something dreadful: the huge oak at the edge of the front yard tipping toward the house.

"Another gust came and it just went down," said Conely, 28. "We were like, "Nooooo!' "

The tree crunched the front porch Conely and Mikell had just completed Saturday. A few limbs punctured upstairs windows, and new drywall in the downstairs TV room was ruined.

But amazingly, it did very little other damage inside.

The couple said the house would probably have been destroyed if the tree had hit it pre-restoration. New beams in the walls and a beefed-up roof line kept the frame intact, they said.

"It's really a sturdy house," Mikell said. "It's been tested."

Two weeks earlier, Mikell had called the city, and crews came out to inspect the tree because it was leaning. City Manager Harold Sample said the fallen tree sat right on the property line, so crews were helping Mikell and Conley pull it off the house.

It was part of a large debris cleanup effort just getting under way.

"The loose, small stuff isn't as much (as from Hurricane Frances) because it got pruned," Sample said. "However, we think we have more big trees (down), and we certainly have more major damage from trees."

Sample said power in the city, which was among the first to lose it, was almost entirely back on, though many surrounding areas were still waiting. He did not yet know how many buildings were damaged Sunday but said the numbers were certain to be greater than in previous storms.

"We're just, again, trying to put pieces back," Sample said.

Sheng Ku was washing dishes about noon Sunday when she heard the boom over the carport. Outside, a large oak tree broke in half, the top of it landing on her minivan.

"It was real scary," she said.

The 46-year-old owns a coffee shop in Tampa, and her only transportation is the Nissan Quest minivan that was nearly broken in half under the carport.

She and her husband, King Ku, 64, planned to move back to Tampa soon. They put their 10th Street house on the market Friday; on Saturday they got a nibble.

Now the carport and a couple of windows will have to be repaired before they sell.

"This tree always worried me," she said.

Back on 13th Street, Odom managed to salvage most of the antique glassware from two hutches in his living room. He and Scott have an extensive collection: Austrian crystal, Avon Collectibles, some pieces from Scott's mother and grandmother.

But the home's original brick fireplace was reduced to rubble. And the 1890 mantle from Mississippi that Odom and Scott just installed is in splinters, along with the exterior walls and windows.

"All that's destroyed now," Odom said.