Neighbors wait for word on help

Published December 27, 2006

SAN ANTONIO, Fla. - The Christmas Day tornado that ripped through east Pasco County caused at least $700,000 in damage and left about 40 people homeless for a night.

But that might not be bad enough to warrant federal disaster aid.

Pasco will only get financial help to repair about 100 damaged homes - including 15 uninhabitable ones - if a state assessment meets the federal thresholds for aid, said Mike Stone, spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

State officials arrive in Pasco today to assess the damage before they make a pitch to federal agencies for help.

Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in Pasco, Columbia, Lake and Volusia, the counties that bore the brunt of the Christmas Day storm.

But, as far as money goes, that declaration means something only if federal agencies agree it is an emergency. The state of Florida does not provide disaster aid on its own.

"State storm aid and federal aid are tied together," Stone said. "A federal declaration has to be granted, and the state pays a certain share."

An October tornado in the Panhandle uprooted hundreds of trees and damaged a hospital, a school and dozens of homes, said Butch Baker, director of emergency management in Franklin County. But the price of damages to public infrastructure did not exceed a $17-million threshold to qualify for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Baker said.

When that fell through, he said, so did the chance for FEMA grants to property owners.

Stone did not confirm that threshold but said there are many different thresholds, none of which could be calculated without state officials first assessing the damage on the ground.

Pasco Fire Rescue put the Christmas tornado's damage at $700,000, but that figure reflects exterior damage only.

"That's going to go up," said Fire Rescue Chief Mike Ciccarello. "It's very, very conservative."

An arc of destruction

Residents may have been surprised by the December tornadoes, but meteorologists were not. "It's not that rare," Anthony Reynes said. "This is the transition between summer and winter. ... We were more than expecting it."

San Antonio's Christmas tornado was one of five that ripped through northern and Central Florida.

The storm dropped a series of small tornadoes that downed trees, thrashed homes and, in Daytona Beach, started a fire when an airplane was flung through a wall at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

In Pasco, the tornado did not seriously hurt anyone, but about 80 homes in the Tampa Bay Golf and Country Club as well 20 on St. Joe Road were damaged. Relief workers shut off power to 15 homes because of structural worries, though no house was destroyed, Ciccarello said.

By Tuesday, all 40 displaced residents had found temporary homes, either with neighbors, family, or, in one case, in a hotel.

The San Antonio twister began at the bottom of the Eagles Nest neighborhood and worked its way up in an arc of destruction that reached 500 feet wide.

Now the good news

County officials do not believe that an isolated tornado will push up home insurance rates.

Also, homeowners needing repairs need not worry: There was no Christmas shortage of repair contractors - if anything, there was a little too many of them.

"We had a couple of contractors come out immediately," said Doug Tobin, the sheriff's spokesman.

Some tree removal companies that showed up were sent packing because their big trucks were in the way of the cleanup, Ciccarello said.

"We urge people as they research contractors to ask whether contractors are licensed," he said. "They probably will be solicited. We urge them to do their homework."

Attorney General Charlie Crist issued a warning on price gouging, telling residents to beware of scams and unsolicited approaches.

But, with relief workers outnumbering displaced residents 2-to-1, Pasco officials and residents were pleased with an operation that went with few major glitches.

"They did an excellent job," said resident Joe Hartley.

The only problem he had Tuesday was with "nosey" people.

"They're just trying to gawk," Hartley said.

Staff writers Molly Moorhead, Erin Sullivan and Joni James contributed to this report. Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at cyap@sptimes.com or 813909-4613.

Telling tornadoes

Analyzing a tornado is as much an art as science, meteorologists say. Anthony Reynes of the National Weather Service in Ruskin likened it to forensic examination. Here's what he did:

- Spent six hours after the tornado hit at the site.

- Looked at debris patterns to see if they were caused by "straight-line" winds or rotating tornadoes, usually by noting the direction of the debris.

- Assessed difference in debris patterns on opposing sides of a "debris field."

- Interviewed residents; residents may report very different versions of the same event. In Pasco, the relatively narrow path led to "pretty consistent" interview results, he said.