Those Left in Trail of Twister Begin Picking Up the Pieces

As Floridians assess damage, many say lessons from 1992 hurricane saved lives.

The handpainted sign at the entrance to the Lakeside Estates reads: "Building parts for sale."

It's a sign that at least some residents here have kept their sense of humor in the wake of Monday's tornadoes that reduced to kindling hundreds of homes in this central Florida subdivision. It's also an indication that many of the residents and business owners have begun rebuilding their lives and their houses.

While no one in this neighborhood was killed, rescuers were still combing the rubble for victims in nearby recreation vehicle and mobile home parks. It was there, with homes too light or too old to sustain 200 mph winds, that 36 of the 39 fatalities occurred.

Yesterday President Clinton inspected the damage in Osceola county, one of 14 counties getting federal emergency assistance in the aftermath of the deadliest swarm of tornadoes in Florida's history.

Here, at the spanking new 1,300-home Lakeside Estates, more than 300 homes were declared uninhabitable, but nobody died.

And that, officials say, may have to do with changes since hurricane Andrew. The 1992 storm destroyed or damaged 35,000 homes and caused $25 billion in losses over three states. As a result, state and federal governments toughened building codes, requiring new homes' walls to be stiffened with more steel and windows to be stronger, for example.

New codes saved lives

The new codes probably saved lives at Lakeside, says Kissimmee building inspector Joel Hunt. "It's the best thing that could have happened," he says.

Hunt worked from dawn to dusk Monday and Tuesday, touring the damaged buildings and spray painting the homes that needed to be condemned with a big black "C" and those that could be repaired with an "R".

Rafael Rivera and Glenda Diaz got a "C". Much of what's left of their three-bedroom house is a heap of rubble. But Ms. Diaz, who works at the nearby DisneyWorld theme park, says they will stay and use their insurance money to rebuild.

By Tuesday, All-State Insurance was among the companies dispatching agents to the area. Each of its 15 agents handed out $50,000 in cash for relocation and rebuilding costs - about $5,000 per person, says Michael Keith, an All-State manager at the Mount Dora, Fla. office.

But Lakeside resident Rita Rouleau looks at the giant R on her house with disgust. "Repair? No way!" she exclaims, standing on a floor littered with birdseed, shards of glass, and splintered timber. Where her roof was, there is now blue sky and bare rafters.

"I won't live in it - absolutely, never," she says. "It's either a tornado, a hurricane, or severe thunderstorms.... I'm out of this state," Ms. Rouleau concludes.

But to most residents, this remains home. And the pound of the hammers can be heard all around.

Near the subdivision, the Cypress Elementary School has been turned into a makeshift city hall. City officials are distributing building permits and checking on contractors.

"We're after the fly-by-nighters," says Hunt. To prevent price-gouging, he wants to make sure every contractor is licensed.

By day's end, six contractors from across Florida had signed in. Twenty vendors from Home Depot had showed up selling truckloads of everything from plywood to blue-plastic sheeting to new generators.

Ponderosa Park disaster

But at the Ponderosa Park Campground, one of the stops on Mr. Clinton's visit, the mood is more somber. Most of the 200 trailers were destroyed and eight people were killed here. Yesterday, it still looked like a war-zone with a stream of federal, state, and county officials touring the place, and police dogs searching the rubble for missing people.

After Hurricane Andrew destroyed 97 percent of mobile homes in Dade County, new "wind-speed resistance" rules require mobile homes to be more safely anchored and to be stronger. But in Kissimmee many trailers were older.

Officials expect the storm damage will worsen the demand for construction labor, here, that has already been stretched by an unprecedented housing boom. Last year, Kissimmee some 2,000 new building permits, four times the number in 1992.

While the cost of labor and building materials are likely to rise, the feeling of many in central Florida residents is summed up by the words painted on the remaining wall of a Lakeside Estate home: "Thank God, we're OK."

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