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Lessons learned

(ran Seminole edition)

Typically, those fleeing a hurricane's fury flock here for safety. Its inland location and high elevation make it a beacon for those living along the beaches.

But what happens when the mecca of stability is threatened? Four storms within six weeks of one another forced residents and city officials here to find out.

From late August to Sunday, each of the storms threw local cities a cocktail packed with its own personality and powerful consequences.

The storms hit in such quick succession that cities are still struggling to calculate costs.

Hurricane Charley, whose Category 4 strength prompted emergency experts to urge evacuation early and often, veered east and did minimal damage here. Hurricane Jeanne's Category 1 rains and wind, on the other hand, never sparked an evacuation order but whipped cities already bruised by its predecessors.

Some plans withstood the near-weekly tests of their fortitude. Others need tweaking.

Luckily for residents and evacuees, Seminole's plan passed muster, storm after storm, said City Manager Frank Edmunds.

"One of the things we did discover . . . was that our emergency preparedness plan is fundamentally sound," he said Tuesday. "The logic in that plan worked well for us, whether addressing weather, emergency, or a variety of occasions where the severity fluctuated significantly."

Preparedness covers three phases: before, during and after the event, he said.

Prestorm, he alerts the city's 150 employees and monitors the storm's progress. Administrators make sure there are sufficient funds available and send the city's backup files for vital records out of state or to an unaffected area outside the city.

Public works employees do a citywide sweep, removing possible projectiles such as trash cans from the parks and roads. The fire department shuffles its schedule around, bones up on staff and puts the two reserve fire engines into service, Edmunds said.

During the storm, fire, public works and administrative staffers are on duty. How long they stay and how many employees the city requires depend on the storm's severity, Edmunds said.

"Each storm is so unique that it's not "one size fits all,' so our plan has to have flexibility," Edmunds said. "Our staffing requirements have the same flexibility."

Poststorm, employees focus on removing debris and assessing damage, Edmunds said. If a storm leaves extensive damage, the Fire Department's role could include search and rescue, he said.

The storms also raised the city's awareness that "equipment modifications" to public works vehicles could be needed to deal with hurricanes' aftermath.

Long-term, Edmunds said, the city wants to ensure the stability of public facilities. A new city hall, due for completion in November, should withstand a Category 2 hurricane and maybe a Category 3, Edmunds said.

The city is analyzing its buildings to see where they could be shored up, he said.

REDINGTON BEACH: As Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne approached, Redington Beach Town Clerk Larry Bittner backed up computer files and sent copies to a friend in a Missouri courthouse for safekeeping.

Each time, with the exception of Jeanne, important records were moved to the town's temporary headquarters in Seminole.

But it was after Ivan bypassed Pinellas County to strike the Panhandle, Bittner said, that the extensive damage there made him realize that moving records to Seminole is not good enough if the area were to get a direct hit.

"Now we're considering getting a waterproof safe to protect our records," Bittner said. "And by the end of the year, we hope to have everything on disk."

REDINGTON SHORES: Town Administrator Don Lusk learned that many of the town's hurricane procedures are inadequate.

He said he will recommend against moving town records off site as in the past. Instead, he said the town should waterproof them and leave them on-site while computerizing as many as possible for easier removal on computer disk or backup tape.

"What good does it do to take file drawers to Seminole? If we got hit like the Panhandle, something could happen to them there as well," Lusk said.

Before Jeanne, Lusk said he was confident the new Town Hall's 12-foot elevation and 120-mph wind rating would provide good protection against most storms.

But Jeanne, which was a tropical storm by the time it arrived in Redington Shores, left more than $11,000 in damage to the building's roof, soffits, wiring and carpets.

MADEIRA BEACH: Fire Chief Derryl O'Neal learned that storms' unpredictability forced the city to stay on its toes and prepare for the future.

Records get transferred to the second floor of Wachovia Bank, at the corner of Duhme Road and the Tom Stuart Causeway. Vacations get canceled and fire employees prepare to stay on duty at least 72 hours, he said.

Week to week, the city's approach to storm preparation never waivered, he said.

The city plans to look at how City Hall can be hardened for future storms. The building sits in a flood plain and has a lot of large, plate-glass windows, making it vulnerable to flying debris, O'Neal said. The fiscal year 2005 budget now has money set aside for new wiring and a generator, he said.

"We just have to always be prepared for the worst and take what comes," he said.

SOUTH PASADENA: Mayor Dick Holmes said that, despite nervousness, the city will keep its insurance plan, which it shares with several other cities. The benefit _ and the danger _ of such a "risk pool" arrangement is if one city is hit hard by a storm, it does not have to bear all of the costs by itself.

South Pasadena will likely see its rates go up by virtue of being in the same risk pool with Punta Gorda, which was severely damaged by Charley. Holmes said commissioners talked about looking for another policy, but the season has not left the city looking good to insurers.

"When you've had four hurricanes hit you, who is going to want you?" Holmes said.

BELLEAIR BEACH: "We are fatigued, mentally and physically," said Mayor Mike Kelly.

Three times the town hired extra staff to help pack up 10 tall file cabinets, computers and other office equipment, files and supplies into large rental trucks. Three times the town moved its maintenance equipment to high ground at Belleair Bluffs.

Three times the town moved it all back.

Although Belleair Beach has decided to spend $25,000 to begin archiving its records on microfiche film, it won't happen for at least another year.

BELLEAIR SHORE: The owners of the town's 55 or so beachfront homes are responsible for cleaning up their own yards as well as their individual sections of beach extending to the high tide line. The high swells churned up by Ivan resculpted the beach, moving much of it into pools and up to homeowner's back doors, in some cases to depths of three or four feet.

So when other beach communities rolled out their maintenance crews to remove beach debris, each Belleair Shore homeowner struggled to locate contractors with tractors and backhoes not already engaged elsewhere.

Seminole firefighter/emergency medical technician Jim Lundh escorts Ann Rochette, 89, into Bauder Elementary School on Sunday morning during Hurricane Jeanne. Rochette lives at the Harbor Lights Mobile Home Park. "It's my third time to evacuate," she said. "I'm getting use to it."

Jackie Whitham of St. Pete Beach and daughter Lauren check out the high waves on the Pass-a-Grille waterfront Monday. St. Pete Beach officials said that with no evacuation order for Jeanne, they instead focused on managing those who stayed behind.