TAMPA — Stinging rain pelted hundreds of students, sending them running for shelter during a Friday afternoon downpour on what was supposed to be their day to enjoy the Florida State Fair.
Wind roared through the huge Cox Food Corral tent — ripping the tethers and toppling the 50-foot-square structure and setting the scene for chaos.
People ran throughout the fairgrounds, some screaming, "Tornado!" as they scrambled for cover. Along with the large tent, the wind tipped over some tables and blew the cover off an ATM machine.
Katye Waddle, 15, huddled under the food tent with several people when what she described as a sudden huge gust blew over the structure. A pole knocked her in the head, but she said she was able to run away.
"There was a girl we passed and she was clutching her head and it was bleeding," said Waddle, a student at Blake High School.
Thirteen people were injured in the severe weather and were taken to St. Joseph's and Brandon Regional hospitals, said Battalion Chief Ernie Wargo of Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. Two of them had serious injuries, and the other 11 had minor injuries.
"Nothing was life-threatening," Wargo said. "There were no emergency transports or trauma alerts."
Fair officials said Cox's Food Corral will reopen today. Workers removed the damaged tent and erected a smaller one in its place about 5:30 p.m.
Aria Sitlin said she and her husband had taken their children to the fair on Friday because of the annual "Fair Day," where some Hillsborough County schools close to allows student to attend.
"It started to rain . . . then all of sudden there was a gust of rain that came through that tore the whole place apart," she said. People were "running for their lives. . . . It was surreal; I'm a little bit in shock."
Rides shut down during the battering rain, but almost all had reopened by 5 p.m. And the fair honored student coupons for Fair Day until closing time, even though they were supposed to expire at 5 p.m.
Nearby on Interstate 4, visibility dropped quickly at 3 p.m., and drivers pulled onto shoulders to let the gusting rains pass.
The storm hit the Tampa Bay area swiftly and powerfully.
About 2:30 p.m. Friday, rain and strong winds buffeted two homes on Michigan Avenue in St. Petersburg. The force uprooted a palm tree, damaged roof tiles and tore the screening behind one of the homes. The National Weather Service estimated the winds at 60 mph.
A tornado watch was issued earlier in the afternoon for the entire area and most of the state. The watch lasted through about 9 p.m.
People at MacDill Air Force Base spotted a water spout at 2:56 p.m., about four miles into the bay.
The showers and thunderstorms were the precursor to a cold front moving east, said Bay News 9 meteorologist Juli Marquez. Friday's rainy weather should give way to a dry weekend, though Marquez said it will be chillier than normal.