'Fortify Florida' expo urges better storm preparation

Published August 27, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - As Tropical Storm Ernesto chugged through the Caribbean Saturday threatening to become a hurricane, dozens of concerned Floridians came to hear how they can be better prepared for a storm.

"You can't rely on luck," said Pinellas Park's Milton Rosado, 47, after learning how he could get an insurance discount for securing his home. "Luck can change."

About 200 people attended the first state-sponsored "Fortify Florida" expo held Saturday at the Coliseum despite cloudy skies and rain that organizers said may have kept many people away.

The event featured about 50 vendors who offered everything from tip sheets on assembling personal disaster kits to displays of windows that can withstand strong winds.

Preparedness was the word of the day. One big publicity push was for the state's new mitigation program, called My Safe Florida Home. The program offers up to $5,000 in matching grants to insured homeowners to make home improvements and free inspections to show weaknesses.

Lawmakers set aside $250-million for the three-year program and already thousands have applied. The grants are available to insured property owners with homestead exemptions.

"We're trying to educate people about how to harden their homes against hurricane damage," said Audrey Sumrall Brown, with the state's office of insurance regulation, which co-sponsored the expo along with the governor's office and the Department of Financial Services.

Two other expos are scheduled, for Pensacola on Sept. 30 and Palm Beach Oct. 14.

For St. Petersburg resident Dave Ryan, 67, the expo proved a great discovery. He's been searching the state for the best way to secure the roof of his 1952 home should a hurricane hit Pinellas County.

He came across an article detailing a roofing reinforcement method he can do himself, thanks to a booth operated by Pinellas County.

"I've been searching and searching," said the retired researcher, "and here it is."

Christy Rojer, 53, walked from vendor to vendor. She kept hearing the same questions, over and over.

"Do you have a cooler with supplies? Do you have enough batteries? Do you have a first aid kit?"

Her answer: "No, I don't."

"I learned I'm not as prepared as I should be," Rojer said. "This is good information."

Tom and Sandy Warren of Bradenton said they were a bit disappointed in the expo, hoping to see more how-to displays from builders and contractors and more items that could be used to reinforce a home.

They consider themselves to be prepared homeowners after having bought flood insurance and hurricane shutters and windows with high impact glass. But they still need to secure their garage door. "Everyone tells you you need braces," said Sandy. Warren, 58. "We went to Home Depot and Lowe's. They don't know anything about it. "We were hoping to find out more here."

Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.