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Strong storm batters Tampa Bay with hail, wind, rain; homes and trees damaged

A powerful storm swept across the Tampa Bay area late Tuesday afternoon knocking out power for thousands, toppling trees and Gasparilla Porta-Potties and trapping school buses trying to get students home before the storm hit.

Meteorologists confirmed that a police officer saw a tornado touching down briefly in Manatee County just after 6 p.m., but officials had not confirmed any touchdowns in other bay area counties.

"We have had several people who have seen them but we don't have any damage directly related to them," said National Weather Service meteorologist Rick Davis.

However, Hernando County resident Rob Arrastia said he watched in fear as a funnel cloud formed outside his home.

"It was swirling and swirling," Arrastia said. "That's when I yelled for (my family) to get in the hallway."

The strongest wind gusts, about 70 to 75 mph, were recorded 2 miles north of downtown St. Petersburg. A few miles away at an Exxon gas station, a canopy buckled and trapped a woman in her car. She was not seriously hurt.

Rob Glazier was shopping in Tom's Food Mart next to the gas station about 5 p.m. when he heard the howling wind followed by a loud crash.

"It sounded like a train, like everybody says it does," he said.

Wind gusts unhinged the grocery's door.

The refrain echoed throughout Tampa Bay.

"I thought the roof was literally going to come off," said Gina Barna in Hernando, where officials reported 14 to 20 damaged buildings. "You know how they say it sounds like a freight train? That's exactly what it sounded like."

Spread from Sumter to Pinellas counties, the storm system had by early evening picked up speed, pushing eastward across the state at nearly 50 mph and forming a water spout west of Apollo Beach. Earlier in the day, a tornado warning went into effect for 32 Florida counties including most of Tampa Bay.

Progress Energy reported scores of downed trees and power lines that caused outages affecting 12,600 customers in Pinellas County and about 400 in Pasco. In Hernando, Withlacoochee River Electric reported about 350 customers without power.

Brian Karahalios, who lives in Hernando, said the wind destroyed sheds, damaged roofs and scattered shingles through his neighborhood's treetops. "We got the dog in from out back and the windows started shaking," Karahalios said. "We just ran into the bathroom and got into the tub."

The severe weather struck as many Hernando school buses were making their way along afternoon routes. Two buses — one for Challenger K-8, the other for Moton Elementary — became trapped on Batten Road, east of Brooksville, for about 25 minutes due to downed trees.

"They had trees down in front of them and behind them," transportation director Linda Smith said. The district's radios stopped working, Smith said, forcing drivers to call in on cell phones.

Earlier in the afternoon, Pinellas, Hernando and Hillsborough school officials had canceled all after-school and adult education programs because of the rough weather.

From 1 to 2 inches of rain had fallen across the Tampa Bay area by early evening, and forecasters predicted rain showers would continue through the night.

Bay News 9 meteorologist Josh Linker said the storms were over but temperatures would drop for the rest of the week, beginning with highs in the 60s today and a high of 59 on Thursday.

Times staff writers John Woodrow Cox, Ileana Morales, Erin Sullivan, Tony Marrero, Kameel Stanley and Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report.

Strong storm batters Tampa Bay with hail, wind, rain; homes and trees damaged 01/25/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 12:11am]
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