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Sleet falls for first time since 1996 in northern Tampa Bay area

Something a bit magical happened outside the Fullers' home early Saturday morning.

"We could hear it hitting the leaves, like little chunks of ice. It didn't sound like rain," said Justin Fuller, 27, of Weeki Wachee.

Outside, a white substance covered the blankets the family had used to protect plants. Little flakes dotted Fuller's hat as he went outside to see.

Colten Fuller, 2, "came running outside barefoot" he was so excited, his father said. "I was excited too. I felt like a kid again."

Sleet and perhaps a handful of snow flurries fell on parts of the Tampa Bay area Saturday — a cold rain soaked the rest.

But was it snow or sleet? The official ruling was, so to speak, mushy.

"We're saying it was mostly sleet," said Nicole Carlisle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin. "I think we had a couple of snow flurries mixed in there in Pasco, but the rest was sleet."

Another freeze warning is expected for the entire Tampa Bay area tonight, weather officials said. Even Pinellas County, which usually escapes the cold weather warnings, is expected to be included in the warning.

"It's certainly going to be cold … very, very cold," Carlisle said.

But don't expect to see any of the white stuff.

On Saturday, such sightings prompted the weather service to issue a statement: "This is the first time snow and/or sleet has occurred in West Central Florida since Jan. 8, 1996, when it was reported in areas from Crystal River south to around New Port Richey. Otherwise, the immediate Tampa Bay area has not seen snow and/or sleet since Dec. 23, 1989."

Bay News 9 meteorologist Brian McClure said most of what was reported was either sleet or rain, but "Hernando, Citrus, they did have some flakes of snow mixed in early."

The bay area came extremely close to seeing something more impressive, McClure said.

The air from 2,000 feet to 10,000 feet early Saturday was 33 degrees — and if it had been 32 degrees, all the rain that fell on Saturday would have been snow instead, he said.

"You would have seen snow all morning instead of light rain showers, and that alone would have been just amazing to people."

But what fell on Saturday was just enough to make even Northerners used to tire chains, snowmobiles and skis, pause.

"My first thought was, my God, it's snow in Florida, I didn't come here for that," said Terry Bogard, 73, a retired chemist in Citrus County, who used to live in New York state.

His wife, Patricia, 66, who used to teach school in the Bronx, agreed. "There's something wrong in this. I mean I have been so cold this last week it's like being home."

But, she admitted with a laugh, she wouldn't have thought anything of it back home.

For some, the constant cold weather has been more than an inconvenience.

Commercial shrimpers don't go out when it's too cold because of how the shrimp move and deal with the cold.

"We are making zero dollars and have not made anything for about three weeks," said Charity Rodriguez, whose husband captains a boat based in Hernando Beach.

And, forecasters say, it's not over yet.

After waking up to freezing or near-freezing temperatures today, residents can expect sunshine and the highs to reach the upper 40s, forecasters said. But overnight lows will dip right back into the 30s or lower again.

A gradual warmup is expected after Monday. By the end of the week, temperatures should inch back up into the mid to upper 60s.

Sleet falls for first time since 1996 in northern Tampa Bay area 01/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 9, 2010 10:50pm]
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