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Thousands lose power around Tampa Bay as fierce front brings rain, tornadoes but no injuries

Pasco County workers and emergency personnel survey storm damage along Ridge Top Drive in New Port Richey Tuesday morning.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Pasco County workers and emergency personnel survey storm damage along Ridge Top Drive in New Port Richey Tuesday morning.

The tornadoes were part of a fierce front that swept through Tampa Bay, bringing rain, hail and wind gusts of 60 mph. A tornado watch that had been expected to be in effect until 2 p.m. was canceled about noon.

One side benefit: lots of rain in the midst of an ongoing drought.

No injuries were reported in Trinity east of Holiday, but damage was widespread. The Oak Ridge subdivision appeared to take the biggest hit, with trees down and parts of roofs strewn throughout the area of Copperfield Drive and Ridge Top Drive. Just to the east, the storm left similar damage to homes in the Wyndtree subdivision. County officials set up a command center at a nearby Publix supermarket.

Glenn Pratten was having breakfast at 8:40 a.m. in the kitchen of his home on Ridge Top Drive when the sky turned dark. He feared a tornado might be coming, but before he could push his 88-year-old mother into another room in her wheelchair, the storm came and went, leaving the house severely damaged.

"Oh God,'' Pratten prayed, "please protect us.''

"I was afraid the house was going to come down on us,'' said his mother, Janelle Pratten.

Eight Oak Ridge homes had extensive damage, said Jim Martin, Pasco County's emergency management director. Twenty homes in Trinity Oaks were damaged, about three of those with more extensive damage. Eight homes in Wesley Chapel had roof damage; at one of those homes, a car flipped over.

The storm's aftermath revealed a surreal precision: Just 20 yards away from Tricia Bright's Wyndtree home, where she had fearfully crouched with her three young children in a closet as her front windows shattered from flying debris, homes looked perfectly fine without so much as a potted plant upturned.

"It was a matter of seconds," Bright recalled, "but it lasted so long."

The National Weather Service reported a strong rotation on Doppler radar near Dunedin, but there was no evidence that a tornado touched down.

Progress Energy reported about 12,000 customers affected by outages across the Tampa Bay area: roughly 1,500 in Pinellas County and fewer than 100 in St. Petersburg. About 3,200 are without power in the New Port Richey area in Pasco County and poles and lines are down in nearby Trinity and Holiday, said spokeswoman Suzanne Grant. About 770 Tampa Electric customers lost power, according to spokesman Patrick Ho, and roughly 500 of those were in the northwest corner of the county.

By 1 p.m., a weather station at St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport had recorded .76 inches of rain. Tampa International Airport measured .86 inches, nearly matching the total for March.

Emergency crews were responding to reports of damage and power loss in Tampa, Tarpon Springs, Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel. On Inkley Court in Wesley Chapel, a blue Toyota Highlander was flipped onto its roof in the driveway. The home is less than 2 miles from State Road 54 and Curley Road.

Cara McKiernan said she was on the phone and folding laundry at 9 a.m. when she heard a loud crash outside.

"I looked out and saw the pool cage collapse,'' she said. Then she noticed the car flipped in the driveway.

Traffic signals at two busy intersections — Florida Avenue and Busch Boulevard in Tampa, and Interstate 75 and State Road 56 in Wesley Chapel — blacked out this morning.

Tampa responders reported four car crashes and some blown transformers from the heavy rain and wind. Trees and power lines were knocked down in north Tarpon Springs

The storm also brought intermittent hail to the Keystone area of northwestern Hillsborough County and pea-sized hail to Citrus Park.

"We could hear it hit the roof," said Tom Aderhold, president of the Keystone Civic Association. "It definitely sounded different than rain."

A second front was less destructive and a tornado warning was canceled by noon.

A tornado watch means conditions are favorable for development. A warning means a tornado is "imminent or in progress. That's the take-action stage," said NWS meteorologist Nick Petro.

The warning was issued, Petro said, because a storm system moving across the upper Mississippi River Valley and Great Lakes with a cold front extending south from it was meeting warm, moist air in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico.

When the fronts meet, Petro said, the cold front provides the "lifting mechanism" and changing wind directions that can breed tornadoes. The front should push through by mid-afternoon.

Meteorologists predicted a 60 percent chance of precipitation today, with thunderstorms most likely after 2 p.m. Highs will reach near 79 degrees with southwest winds between 13 and 23 mph. According to the NWS, rainfall amounts between 0.5 and 0.75 of an inch are possible.

Lows should drop to the high 60s tonight with rain chances diminishing to 20 percent.

Times staff writers Drew Harwell, Rick Danielson, Jodie Tillman, Brendan Fitterer and Mike Camunas contributed to this report. Brant James can be reached at brant@sptimes.com.

Thousands lose power around Tampa Bay as fierce front brings rain, tornadoes but no injuries 04/14/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 17, 2009 1:59pm]
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