Tropical Storm Andrea dumped heavy rain and tornadoes across Tampa Bay this morning, and more showers and gusty winds continued to pummel the region Thursday afternoon, forecasters said.
The storm prompted the Florida Highway Patrol to shut the Sunshine Skyway Bridge at 11:45 a.m. because of winds in excess of 40 miles per hour. Troopers said the bridge would remain closed until "wind speeds and weather conditions permit safe passage."
Several tornado warnings were issued Thursday as the storm approached Tampa Bay.
A tornado was seen on radar moving northeast from Fruitville. Forecasters also spotted tornadoes on radar moving northeast around Busch Gardens and Odessa.
Around 10 a.m. the National Weather Service identified a waterspout on radar near Gulfport. It came ashore on Beach Boulevard and became a tornado.
The high winds sent a 200-year-old cedar tree into Yummy's restaurant.
"We have reports of damage from downed trees on the roads, across a car, and across a restaurant roof, so yes, we are calling it a tornado right now," said Rodney Wynn, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.
Forecasters issued a tornado warning for Pinellas County as the storm moved north toward Clearwater through Pinellas Park.
Pinellas Park police did not report any damage in the area.
The weather service extended a tornado watch for Tampa Bay and a number of surrounding communities until 10 p.m. Thursday night.
Forecasters also sent out a flood advisory for Pinellas, warning of urban and small stream floods until 2:30 p.m.
Some heavy bands of rain began moving out from Tampa Bay shortly before noon, forecasters said. Conditions could begin to improve early Thursday afternoon, but meteorologists caution that new rain bands could form and change that.
"We should be getting into a better window of weather after 2 o'clock this afternoon," said NWS meteorologist Tom Dougherty.
Two in-state flights via turboprop planes and two dozen commercial flights out of Tampa International Airport were delayed because of the storm.
As of 2 p.m., Andrea was moving to the northeast at 17 mph, the National Hurricane Center reported. The storm had sustained winds of 60 mph. Gusts in Punta Gorda reached 58 mph.
Earlier Thursday, gusts were 48 mph in St. Petersburg.
Andrea was forecast to make landfall north of Levy County Thursday evening, forecasters said.
As of approximately 11 a.m. Thursday, 4.82 inches of rain had fallen in Largo, said Bay News 9 meteorologist Brian McClure. Gulfport had seen 3.71 inches of rain. New Port Richey had received 2.74 inches, Clearwater saw 2.98 inches and Tampa International Airport had reported 2.47 inches.
Minor to moderate flooding was forecast through Thursday, with potential storm surges of 2 to 5 feet.
Andrea is not expected to strengthen before reaching the coast, but could weaken overnight and early Friday as the storm moves over land. Within 36 to 48 hours, Andrea may begin to "lose tropical characteristics."
Andrea dumped about 2 inches of rain on Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, which water officials said should boost lakes and rivers as well as the aquifer over the next few days. But it will have no effect on the current lawn-watering restrictions, which are currently set to expire at the end of July, according to Suzanna Martinez Tarokh of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
The water district, commonly known as Swiftmud, voted in February to restrict lawn-watering in the three counties to once a week because of an ongoing drought that had left rivers, lakes and the aquifer all suffering. Meanwhile Tampa Bay Water's 15.5 billion gallon reservoir is empty because of an effort to repair its multiple cracks. Instead the utility's desalination plant in Apollo Beach continues to treat and produce 19 million gallons a day of fresh water.
The heavy rain from Andrea is helping to reduce demand, said Brandon Moore, a spokeswman for Tampa Bay Water. However, he added, "drought is a long term condition; it takes time to go into a drought and takes time to get out of a drought." The region needs to see the kind of heavy rainfall it received last summer to build back up to normal levels, he said.
At Yummy's in Gulfport, owners of the restaurant were surveying damage late Thursday morning after a tornado sent a tree crashing into their front room.
No one at the location was injured, and there is no significant visible damage to other buildings on the block.
Owners Lori Luczak, 49, and Richard Reale, 50, said they are taking steps to assess whether there is serious structural damage and to decide how long the restaurant will have to be closed.
"It's starting to set in and devastate me now," Luczak said.
During Tropical Storm Debby last year, part of the same tree broke off and landed in the street. This is the most serious weather Yummy's has seen in its six years, the owners said.
Reale tried to lighten the mood in the restaurant by joking about how great it will look when they clean it up.
"We've always wanted to put doors to the outside to serve ice cream," he said. "Maybe this will be our chance."
Alex Ostrowski, who lives across the street from Yummy's, peeked out his back window to see how bad the weather was before letting his dog outside.
"I saw the wind spiraling toward me," he said.
By the time he got to the front window, Yummy's was gone. The tornado just missed his house but left some debris on the side about seven feet up.
"This is my favorite place, so it sucks to see Yummy's go," said Ostrowski, 23.
Around the corner from Yummy's on the completely flooded Gulf Boulevard, Allie Burke, 14, heard wind and some crashes, so she ran to a window that looks out on the beach. She watched a waterspout move toward her house.
The wind shattered several glass panels on her family's second-floor patio — which were built to handle strong winds — tossed multiple 85-pound rocking chairs into the street and the neighbor's yard and knocked out the power.
"I turned around and saw the TV go off, and I was like 'Oh crap,' " Burke said.
Her grandfather, Lawrence Burke, said the damage all happened in under 30 seconds. He added that in his 20 years in Florida, this is the worst weather he has experienced.
"We've been through a lot of hurricanes, but this tornado is a totally different story," he said.
In John's Pass, a hard rain fell around 9 a.m. while whitecaps beat the shore and docks bounced restlessly in a stiff wind.
The boats at Hubbard's Marina are staying in today, said owner Mark Hubbard.
"First week of hurricane season, and we get a tropical storm," he said. "I can't believe it."
Hubbard said the storm comes at a particularly bad time for his business because this week is the start of red snapper season. He added that he's spending his day rearranging fishing trips and preparing tackle.
"We'll try to catch up," Hubbard said.
Despite the weather, numerous people gathered at Madeira Beach to experience the storm. Carlesia Collier of Knoxville, Tenn., sat fully clothed on a wooden plank at the shoreline, getting drenched from both the rain and the waves. Collier, 53, used to live in Florida and would always head to the beaches with her family to welcome a storm.
"This was a tradition when we used to live here," Collier, 53, said. "We'd hang on to the piers and enjoy it."
The Tampa Bay Chapter of the American Red Cross has set up a shelter at Chapel on the Hill United Church of Christ at 12601 Park Blvd. in Seminole. The Red Cross suggests bringing any important documents, food for unusual diets, hygiene supplies and other necessary items.
Parts of Clearwater Beach were closed at midday Thursday, and lifeguards were considering closing the rest of it as they watched the weather. Wind gusts whipped a series of red "no swimming" flags posted near Pier 60.
"We have red flags on every lifeguard tower because of the high hazard — heavy surf, strong currents, high winds," said water safety supervisor Patrick Brafford. "Swimming is not advised today. It is not a day to be in the water."
Much of the sand had disappeared beneath the foamy surf. The beach was empty except for a few young men with boogie boards and about a dozen beach visitors leaning into the wind as they staggered along the water's edge.
"It's exhilarating," said Ohio tourist Kevin DeAngelis, "but a little scary."
As Andrea surged through Tampa Bay Thursday, a kennel roof collapsed at the Humane Society of Pinellas, displacing 20 wet dogs into conference rooms.
Nobody, canine or human, was hurt.
"We were all a little shaken up," said Humane Society employee Abigail Kamleiter, checking on the separately caged dogs in one conference room. "We heard the crash, stepped into our boots, ran outside and got them out of there in less than 15 minutes."
Last year, during Tropical Storm Debby, oak tree branches crashed into the partially open-air shelter, damaging some cages. The dogs, cats and rabbits were unharmed.
"We hired an arborist this year to make sure that won't happen again," said spokesperson Twila Cole. "And we have the building checked regularly. This was just a freak occurrence."
Some high schools moved their graduation ceremonies indoors in the wake of Andrea.
On Thursday morning, Pinellas school officials announced Countryside High School relocated its graduation from the Bright House Field to the school gym due to the weather. Students whose last name begins with A-L will have a ceremony at 9:30 a.m. and students whose last name begins with M-Z will go on at 11:30 a.m.
St. Petersburg High School rescheduled its graduation to 9 a.m Friday on Stewart Field. If the weather is rainy, the school will hold a split-session inside the auditorium. The first session at 10 a.m. will be for students with last names that begin with A-J and the second session at 1 p.m. will be for students with last names that begin with K-Z.
The city of St. Petersburg is offering sand bags for residents from noon until 8 p.m. at two locations: Northeast Park, 875 62nd Avenue NE, and the Frank W. Pierce Center, 2000 Seventh St. S.
Duke Energy reported that about 4,900 customers were without power in the Tampa Bay area at 1:30 p.m. About 4,750 of the outages were in Pinellas.
At 7:49 a.m., the weather service spotted a tornado west of New Port Richey and Tarpon Springs on radar and sent out a tornado warning for the nearby area, effective until 8:15 a.m. The Pinellas Sheriff's Office and Tarpon Springs police said they did not receive reports of tornado sightings.
At 3 p.m. Thursday, authorities closed the right lane of southbound Interstate 275 near Lois Avenue because heavy rain caused a depression to form on the shoulder of the highway. The Florida Department of Transportation reopened the lane at 4:15 p.m.
On N Pebble Beach Boulevard in Sun City Center, neighbors assessed the damage to their homes after a tornado ripped through their area early Thursday.
At least five homes sustained minor damage: shattered windows, torn shingles, and parts of lanais and porches ripped off.
Carole Bajanen said she got a weather alert on her cell phone about 3 a.m. with a tornado warning.
Moments later, the blinds inside her home started to shake. She heard what sounded like a train barreling through her neighborhood.
"The rumble you've heard so many times described on the news," she said.
Then, less than a minute later, silence.
"It was loud and then it stopped," she said. "It was just a short time of fear."
At her house, a solar panel atop the roof was damaged, a shed was broken and a front window was shattered.
Across the street from Bajanen lives Jean LaFleur, who awoke about 4 a.m. Friday and noticed the screened in porch was missing.
"It's all gone," she said.
On Thursday morning, rain fell on the two sets of patio furniture, potted plants and gym equipment once sheltered by the porch. Phil LaFleur, Jean's husband, was on the phone with the couple's home insurance company.
Large, gray clouds hovered above N Pebble Beach Boulevard. Debris from the LaFleurs' screened in porch, including a mangled ceiling fan, littered their front yard and the grass across the street. Strong winds battered palm trees.
"It could have been a lot worse," Jean LaFleur said. "There's not much you can do."
Not too far away, clouds blew through South Tampa on Thursday morning as parents walked their children into Gorrie Elementary at 705 W De Leon St. Hillsborough's public schools are open.
Much of the flooding from the early morning had receded and only light rain drops fell on the heads of kids eager to finish their last week of school.
Many families said they didn't even notice the storm overnight.
"We slept through it," Liz Mickler said of her and her two kids. "It didn't affect us at all."
Several parents said they checked the weather and the news before they left for school to make sure all was clear.
"I watched the news last night and said, 'It's just going to be a rainmaker,' '' Jonathan Tipton said as he walked his daughter Callie into school, each carrying umbrellas. "You can't be lulled into a false sense of security with these storms, though."
Flooding on Bayshore Boulevard was reported Thursday morning and all lanes from Bay to Bay Boulevard to Platt Street were closed. The roadway may remain closed through Thursday evening due to high water.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office reported relatively few traffic accidents.
Sandbag materials available to the public from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. as weather conditions permit at all three County Public Works service units: West Service Unit, 9805 Sheldon Road in Tampa; South Service Unit, 8718 Old Big Bend Road in Gibsonton; East Service Unit, 4702 Sydney Road in Plant City.
Officials said they had handed out 530 bags by 11 a.m.
In Tampa Electric's service territory, 1,213 customers were without power Thursday afternoon.
Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo was closed because of the storm.
The right lane on a stretch of I-275 southbound near Lois Avenue was closed temporarily Thursday afternoon due to a depression that formed.
The weather service issued a significant weather advisory for eastern Pasco about 12:30 p.m., effective until 1:15 p.m. Forecasters spotted a line of strong rain showers near Wesley Chapel, headed northeast. Winds between 45 and 55 mph were expected.
Early Thursday, Duke Energy crews restored power to two sections of Zephyrhills that had seen outages: Eiland Road and Gall Boulevard, where 179 customers were without power at about 8 a.m. and Gall Boulevard and Chancey Road, where 757 customers did not have electricity.
As Tropical Storm Andrea continued its steady trek northward through the Gulf Of Mexico, Hernando County emergency officials were keeping a watchful eye on low-lying areas of the county that are prone to flooding.
By 11 a.m. Thursday, only a few instances of minor flooding had been reported, mostly in coastal regions near Pine Island and areas near Weeki Wachee, said emergency management director Cecilia Patella.
"We're expecting that in the areas we normally see flooding," Patella said. "But as the day goes along and we get more rainfall, we could see flooding in some inland areas where it is common to see it."
Patella said she knew of no immediate road closures. However, Alfred A. McKethan Park at Pine Island remained closed due to safety concerns. If flooding worsens, roads could be closed should officials determine them unsafe for travel.
According to the National Weather Service, 1.80 inches of rain had fallen between midnight and 11 a.m. Thursday at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport.
Patella said that judging from the low volume of calls to her office, it seemed that residents were not overly concerned about the storm. However, she advised residents that even mild tropical storms have the ability to spawn tornadoes.
"We're asking everyone to stay informed throughout the day and take shelter should they need to," Patella said.
The county will continue to post regular storm alerts on the emergency management page of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office website as well as on the Sheriff's Office Facebook page.
The weather service reported seeing a waterspout on radar 10 miles west of Bayport at 8:49 a.m. It was moving north. Forecasters issued a special marine warning for the shore from Tarpon Springs to Suwannee River, effective until 10:15 a.m.