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Hurricane Charley

'People are hurting down there'

Bay area residents, aware of their good fortune, are mobilizing to help those crawling out of destruction.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published August 17, 2004

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TAMPA - Blessed Again.

Walter Hill posted those two simple words on the marquee outside the Press Box sports bar in South Tampa after Hurricane Charley spared Tampa Bay.

Then Hill, like so many others, pitched in to help those who weren't so fortunate.

Tampa Bay residents, businesses, police officers and emergency officials have given generously in the days since Charley paved a destructive path through Florida - leaving 18 dead, thousands homeless and destroying billions of dollars worth of property.

Churches organized trips to deliver water and repair homes in hard-hit Charlotte County. Radio stations planned donation drives at area Hooters restaurants. Students collected crayons and notebooks. Buccaneers fans handed over dollar bills at Monday night's game. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays will collect donations during a six-game homestand that begins tonight at Tropicana Field.

Police officers, sheriff's deputies and firefighters from both sides of the bay traveled south to control traffic, stop looters and search for bodies.

National Guard units based in St. Petersburg and Tampa left for Punta Gorda and Arcadia, once pleasant towns that now resemble war zones.

"It's just the right thing to do," said Tampa police Chief Steve Hogue. "People are hurting down there."

* * *

For days, Charley was on a path toward Tampa Bay. Law enforcement and emergency rescue officials anticipated they'd need help from nearby counties after the storm.

Then Charley shifted, and it was local police and firefighters who ended up helping counties to the south and west.

A 56-person team from Tampa Fire Rescue, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and St. Petersburg Fire Rescue went to Charlotte County on Friday night.

"We're basically being a good neighbor," Hillsborough Fire rescue spokesman Ray Yeakley said, "because we would hope they'd do the same for us."

More than 500 Army National Guard members from units in Tampa and St. Petersburg fanned out to areas in need. In all, the National Guard has deployed more than 4,500 people.

Twenty Hillsborough sheriff's deputies are working the evening and daytime patrol shifts in Hardee County. Because there's nowhere to stay, they drive back and forth after each shift, said sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter.

A team of 24 people from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office - including two K-9 teams and four marine deputies - arrived in Charlotte County on Saturday. They will be replaced this week with another team, sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said.

The Tampa Police Department had 35 officers and supervisors in Charlotte County by Monday, with plans to send more.

Hillsborough Sheriff's Chief Deputy David Gee drove through Charlotte and Hardee counties Monday. He said deputies sweltered as they directed traffic at busy intersections. The pavement and humidity made it feel well above 100 degrees.

One deputy was shaken after a poor elderly woman walked up to him crying and asked whether he could get her water.

"I think reality is setting in that this is going to be a long, hard mission for our people," Gee said.

* * *

Cheryl Ford is a longtime nurse who splits her time between Tampa and Seattle.

Later this week she and her friend Pamela Hennessy will take off in a U-Haul full of supplies for storm-struck families in the rural towns of Wauchula and Zolfo Springs.

Ford, 51, hopes to deliver diapers, tarp, batteries, baby food and radios.

She said she'll give her own money to those who need it more.

"They need so much help down there. So you've just got to help, you know?" she said.

Ford's sentiment echoed throughout the bay area.

About 2:30 p.m. Monday, Arnold Andrews hopped into a Ryder rental truck carrying 1,000 gallons of Zephyrhills spring water and headed south.

Andrews, the executive director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, also brought two $10,000 checks.

At Schwarzkopf Elementary School in Lutz, students are collecting pennies and cash donations. The money will be gathered in buckets at 8 a.m. Friday at the school, and school officials will mail a check to the American Red Cross.

The Pinellas County school district was considering a districtwide relief progra m to help victims, said district spokesman Ron Stone.

In the meantime, several schools moved forward with their own plans.

At Clearwater High School, principal Nickolas Grasso started the school day with a moment of silence for all the families who were in the path of Hurricane Charley.

* * *

Times staff writers Melanie Ave, Catherine Shoichet and Monique Fields contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 17, 2004, 12:58:19]

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