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Storm leaves path of destruction in North Pinellas

The violent storm that whipped through the Tampa Bay area Thursday focused much of its wrath on North Pinellas County.

One family in Dunedin was forced from their home after a lightning strike set their home ablaze. And torrential rains and high tides saturated Tarpon Springs.

But the Largo area near Ulmerton Road and Seminole Boulevard bore the brunt of the storm, with reports of fallen trees, broken windows and mangled carports. The worst of the storm hit there between 11 and 11:30 a.m.

Largo Fire Rescue opened a command center after initial reports of tornadoes and property damage started coming into 911, Largo fire Chief Mike Wallace said.

"A lot of mobile home units were damaged, and quite a few cars, but no injuries thank goodness," said Largo's Deputy Fire Chief Jim Warman.

But some residents in that area told harrowing tales of close calls.

Ray Podner, 63, and his wife had peeked outside the front door of their 125th Street home in Largo to catch a glimpse of the messy weather.

"All of a sudden I heard the whirling sound — like the roar of a freight train," he later said. "Tornado! Get back in the house!"

Next door, Elena Reed, 48, was sitting at the dining table, watching the sheets of rain through her glass sliding doors. Her husband, daughter and son were nearby when the house began to shake.

On the other side of Seminole Boulevard, near 127th Avenue N, Judy Kozlowski heard the roar and saw the swirling air blacken outside.

Her son, Chris, was asleep in his bedroom. Outside his window, a big tree in the front yard began to move. Kozlowski dragged her son out of bed and into the hallway. Seconds later, a loud crash came from the bedroom.

Podner found a large tree uprooted in his front yard. Reed found one resting on her Honda SUV. The Kozlowskis found a tree had fallen on the roof of their home, nearly penetrating Chris' bedroom. They stood in the hallway outside the room and cried.

At Largo Mall, near the Regal Movie Theater, the entire glass storefront of the Avenue clothing store was blown inward, much of it shattering among the mannequins and banners.

One of the hardest-hit mobile home parks was Oasis Park, near Seminole Boulevard, where there were dozens of mangled carports and collapsed screened porches. One travel trailer there flipped on its side with snowbirds Stewart and Jill Pounds inside. Remarkably, they got only bumps and bruises.

Throughout the Baskins area, south of Ulmerton Road on the west side of Largo, front yards were littered with tree limbs and trash from overturned garbage cans.

Rainbow Village, a low-income apartment complex north of Ulmerton Road, had broken windows and damaged roofs. Thomas Blake was sitting on his porch in the complex when he saw what looked like a small funnel cloud approach the corner near his home. Just before he scurried inside, he watched it double in size and whirl past him.

"It came right down the middle of the block," said Blake, 22. He heard a loud crack, but waited about 20 minutes to see what it was. A huge oak limb had fallen just inches from his front porch.

Three small private planes flipped upside down and several others were damaged at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, which lost power for nearly five hours.

Clearwater reported no major damage, just localized street flooding.

In Dunedin, lightning hit the chimney of a home in the 1300 block of Weybridge Lane and started a fire, causing about $180,000 in damage to the home and about $40,000 to its contents.

"(The residents) watched it blow the electrical outlet out of the ceiling of the great room, blow the tile off the front of the fireplace and it actually blew the smoke detector right off the ceiling of the great room," said Dunedin Fire Marshal Bill McElligott.

Dunedin and Palm Harbor fire crews responded and quickly brought the fire under control, he said. But a Dunedin building official declared the home unsafe due to the danger of collapse from extensive damage to the attic trusses. The residents, who escaped uninjured with their two dogs, are staying with friends.

In Tarpon Springs, homes, streets and yards were inundated by the heavy rains Thursday, which continued into the evening, and cars stalled out at water-filled intersections. At least one home had water inside. The city set up a sandbag station at the Sponge Docks for anyone who wanted them.

"There is so much water in such a short time, there is nowhere for the water to go," said City Manager Mark LeCouris.

Times staff writer Drew Harwell contributed to this report.

Storm leaves path of destruction in North Pinellas 03/31/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2011 7:58pm]
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