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Writers of the storms

Pinellas County is collecting residents' hurricane horror stories in the hopes of educating others.

By JOSE CARDENAS, Times Staff Writer
Published October 12, 2007


You won't have to convince Janet Donegan to evacuate if a hurricane zeroes in on Tampa Bay. She saw the devastation of Hurricane Ivan first-hand in 2004.

From her home in Clearwater, she drove to Pensacola. Struggling to get there on back roads, she hauled water and other emergency supplies for her pregnant daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren.

"It was like a war zone when I got there," said Donegan, 53, who works in Pinellas County's North County Connection Center. "I just broke down and cried. It looked like a bomb went off, and they were living in this stuff."

Instead, Donegan wants to share Ivan's impact on her daughter's family with you.

So she has offered her tale to "Project Storm Story," a new effort by Pinellas County's Emergency Management Department to cull tales of people who have experienced hurricanes.

The stories will be collected indefinitely and shared in an attempt to persuade others to be prepared. They may be published in hurricane preparedness literature or made into a video that could be shown on the county's television station.

"We really want this to be an educational tool," said Tom Iovino, a communications specialist with the county's Emergency Management department.

"The words of the survivors are just paramount because they have been through it," Iovino said. "We hope that knowledge can be given to others so they can make the right decisions that can save their lives."

Pinellas County has not taken a direct hit from a hurricane in more than 85 years, but officials warn that it's a question of when, not if.

Most people who attend Iovino's presentations at churches and libraries have never been through a hurricane, he said. Inevitably, someone will say, they can't be that bad.

To that, Iovino offers the story of the Port Charlotte Vietnam veteran who survived Hurricane Charlie in 2004 by hiding under his desk. The vet said the storm scared him more than combat.

In addition to the many messages officials send out, Iovino said such testimonials may be particularly effective.

Three years ago, Donegan said she watched Ivan bypass Tampa Bay as it traveled north in the Gulf of Mexico. She called her daughter in Pensacola.

Her daughter, Tiffanee Espinal, and her family were wise enough to flee to Texas. But they returned to find their home and possessions destroyed.

Espinal and her family moved in with her husband's brother in a house with half a roof and no water or electricity.

The main lesson Donegan hopes to share with people here is to evacuate.

"You need to be ready. If it means leaving, leave," she said. "If my children would have stayed in that house, they might have been dead."

While Donegan saw the power of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, she learned how deadly powerful storms can be when her parents died in May. Jesse and Gloria Hornsby - 75 and 73, respectively - drowned in a torrential downpour when their van was swept off the road in Copperas Cove, Texas.

So far Iovino has gotten only a half-dozen people with stories. But he hopes for many more.

He wants stories about storms from wherever in the world people may have experienced them.

Joseph Corell, who lives in Clearwater, has offered his tale of a storm that hit the Eastern Seaboard in 1938, when he was 10.

Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office spokeswoman Maggie Hall wants to share her memories of Hurricane Flora in 1963. She was a child in Havana, Cuba. She remembers a dark-as-night sky during the day and a giant tree that was no match for the strong winds.

"It looked like a giant had come by, picked it up and laid it on its side," said Hall.

Fast facts

Tell your stories

By mail:

Project Storm Story

333 Chestnut St.

Clearwater, FL 33756

By e-mail:

tiovino@pinellascounty.org

By fax: (727) 464-4432.