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    Officials prepare for the big one

    Mirroring the powerful hurricane that struck in 1921, officials run an emergency drill for a devastating storm.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2001


    Charlie Jones of Palm Harbor wasn't born when the last hurricane to make a direct hit on Pinellas County made landfall Oct. 25, 1921, at Crystal Beach and Ozona.

    But his father told him of powerful winds that flattened rows of citrus trees in then largely undeveloped North Pinellas County.

    With gusts reaching 100 mph, the storm shattered windows, tore roofs off homes, and knocked down telephone and power lines. Storm-driven tides more than 6 feet above normal flooded most low-lying areas. Total damage was estimated at $1-million.

    Under the theory that it could happen because it did happen, Pinellas County emergency management officials this week simulated a storm that mirrored that 1921 hurricane. The goal was to test their hurricane recovery strategies in case history repeats itself.

    About 100 emergency workers, from Red Cross officials to members of the National Guard, participated in the exercise Wednesday.

    They were greeted with a briefing on the fictitious storm, Hurricane Xerxes, at 8 a.m. in the county's Emergency Operations Center. The picture wasn't pretty. A day after the hypothetical storm, many major roads still were closed. About 40,000 people filled shelters. Downed trees and power lines littered the county. Power remained out in half the county. A notice was put out for residents to boil water. And, as part of the state of emergency, a curfew restricted people to their homes at night. Estimated damage: more than $13-billion.

    But the bleakest news came from the barrier islands, where there was massive flooding, no drinking water or electricity. All bridges remained closed. And 2 to 3 feet of sand amassed on Gulf Boulevard, further clogging emergency access.

    Gary Vickers, a senior county emergency management coordinator, said much of the morning was spent discussing search and rescue operations for people who failed to heed the warnings to evacuate.

    "It underscores the reason why people need to evacuate," Vickers said.

    Among those on hand for the exercise were all of the county's emergency management employees and representatives from all the county fire departments, law enforcement, the National Guard, the Red Cross, utility companies, schools, social services and the county planning department.

    Working in real time, as if the storm recovery were unfolding, the group worked in teams to solve problems such as replenishing emergency shelters with supplies, reopening major roads and dispatching crews to assess damage.

    "It's very realistic," said Len Ciecieznski, a senior public information specialist with the county. "Everyone takes it very seriously. It's a good way to test our emergency preparedness."

    The exercise went well, said David Bilodeau, director of the county's department of emergency management. Participants have the opportunity to go back and work on any areas of weakness so that should a real storm hit, they'll be better prepared.

    "It's a learning tool," Vickers said.

    But no amount of planning will spare the area from some devastation should such a storm hit.

    "We try to eliminate as much suffering as possible," Vickers said. "But there will be suffering."

    Jones, 77, who did not participate in the drill, said his father always warned that very thing.

    "It was a bad storm," Jones, said of the 1921 hurricane. "To hear my folks tell it, if a storm like that ever came along again, a lot of homes would be blown down, especially those on the barrier islands.

    "People need to be aware that hurricanes like that do happen here," he said. "We just don't know how often."

    - Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185.

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