GULFPORT — Anthony Crawford's extended family has celebrated the Fourth of July at Gulfport Beach for 18 years, but this year required some crude hydraulic engineering.
Under overcast, breezy skies, Crawford, 21, arrived early Thursday in his blue-print Jams and sleeveless shirt to stake out a shelter for a party of 30 or so. Only one was available — and it was flooded with a half-foot of water after days of heavy rain. Crawford retrieved a shovel and leaf blower from his nearby Gulfport home and began digging a meandering trench through sand and weeds toward Boca Ciega Bay, 100 feet away.
A trickle grew into a steady flow as Crawford dug deeper and deeper. His sister-in-law Jessica Armey, 28, helped push water along with the leaf blower. Son Kaelob, 3, and niece Nevaeh, 4, romped in the ditch causing minor cave-ins that added to the chore.
At one point, water overflowed the trench and pooled under lawn chairs occupied by St. Petersburg residents Michella Pierce, 47, and Michael Roach, 46, ensconced for a kids' fishing tournament, sand castle building contest and fireworks put on by the city of Gulfport. Pierce arose and reinforced the side of the ditch with more sand to keep water moving toward the bay. She bore Crawford no animosity, she said. "We're all here to have the best time we can have.''
Crawford, who works in landscaping and lawn maintenance, knows his way around a shovel. After about 40 minutes, he took a breather to survey his progress. About an inch of water remained on the shelter floor.
"I figure it will take about an hour,'' he said.
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The wind that blew around Crawford's preparations — somewhat unusual for the Fourth — is going to stick around, weather forecasters say. Bay News 9 meteorologist Brian McClure said scattered storms moved west-northwestward through the Tampa Bay area on Thursday out toward the Gulf of Mexico.
But by 9 p.m., most of those thundershowers had dissipated, just in time for fireworks celebrations throughout the area. Just a few light showers remained in the evening, especially in north Pinellas, but most of the big storms dissipated as the sun set.
McClure, however, cautioned boaters out for the Fourth: "Boating is still horrible. The winds are just really strong out there for this time of year." Windy conditions were expected to continue Friday.
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LUTZ — The crowd gasped when the red-, white- and blue-bedecked man announced a 5-pound apple pie.
Tracy Gaschler's homemade creation had won the blue ribbon for best pie at the Lutz Fourth of July celebration. It took her hours Wednesday night to make the mammoth dessert.
She peeled nine apples. She made a crust from scratch. She even added decorative crust stars and a "100" in honor of Lutz's centennial.
The Lutz celebration has maintained its small-town charm over the years. The daylong event starts with a parade that draws hundreds. Then there's the election of the honorary "guv'na" of Lutz, as well as snow cones and pony rides, all centered on the historic Lutz train depot.
And, of course, there's the cake and pie auction. Bidding started at $25 on Gaschler's pie, then the shouting began.
$30! $40! $50! $60!
Gaschler's husband joined the clamor. He knew the toil his wife endured in the kitchen.
$65! $70! $80!
"Eighty, going once, going twice," the announcer said. "Sold!"
To Ron Gaschler, who won a blue ribbon for best husband.
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BRANDON — Bobby Nero's family didn't want heavy rains and wind to stop their twofer birthday celebration at the 10th annual Brandon Blast.
Nero turned 35 on Thursday. The old man, Uncle Sam, was 237.
"Everybody celebrates my birthday," Nero said from the parking lot of the Westfield Brandon mall. That, he said, was pretty cool. And Nero's birthday is accompanied by fireworks every year. Pretty impressive.
His wife, Jennifer, was off looking for a bathroom with their 4-year-old son, Zachary. Nero held 2-year-old Dylan. Father and son stuck close to the family's antidote for rainy weather — a big canopy.
"You've just got to have that," Nero said.
The keys to a good July Fourth celebration, Nero said, are fairly simple. Arrive early. Stake out a spot. And make sure the kids are awake when the fireworks start.
Dad's birthday, after all, only comes once a year.
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ST. PETERSBURG — They brought their American flags and their lawn chairs and, tempting fate, they left their rain gear at home.
Of the hundreds of people who found a spot in North Straub Park to watch the fireworks, some planned for the rain showers that arrived in the hours leading up to the pyrotechnic display; the rest wound up soggy.
Desiree Moore, 18, and Teresa Salvaggio, 21, sat next to each other on a blanket, overlooking the bay. They wore matching straw cowboy hats and red and white striped bikini tops.
And if it rained?
"I guess we'll just sit here," said Moore.
Minutes later, the skies opened.
Adam Kovacs, 34, and his girlfriend, Ann Heistand, 34, popped open their umbrellas and settled into their lawn chairs. Some years they've watched the fireworks from a boat, some years from Cha Cha Coconuts on the top floor of the now-closed city Pier. With the latter no longer an option, they decided to plant their chairs in a grassy spot on Bay Shore Drive.
"At least it's peaceful here," said Heistand. "And there's still a good view."
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TAMPA — Mark Saunders and friends were like many of Fourth of July revelers around Tampa Bay on Thursday. Job One was finding a good spot to see the fireworks at Channelside Bay Plaza in Tampa.
Job Two for Saunders was keeping dry.
His group settled for seats on a Jersey barrier with a view. It wasn't perfect. But in the spirit of democracy, it required neither reservation nor royal pedigree.
The best seats were at the edge of the water. But only the first 3,500 people through the fence gate got those.
"I suspect many of the people there have British blood," joked Greg Martin, 64, of Vero Beach. "We feel repressed."
But their persistence, and patriotism, was rewarded: the waterworks were replaced by fireworks, which went off on schedule at Channelside.
Saunders, 58, of Lutz, said fireworks are an American tradition worth braving Mother Nature's worst.
"It's nice to be out with our friends and neighbors," he said.
Even if some of them enjoyed better seats.
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ST. PETERSBURG — The sky filled with colorful explosions that lasted until 9:25 p.m.
But long after the show had ended, people continued sending their own rockets into the air, punctuating the night with the occasional blast.
Mandee Gross, 30, of St. Petersburg and her husband were among the throngs of people heading home, sleepy children in tow.
In years past, they've watched the fireworks on the beach, but they came to the city this year for the Rowdies game against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
"We loved it," Gross said.