Monday, March 19, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

Tropical Storm Debby brings heavy rain, strong winds to Tampa Bay

The beach in Gulfport was gone. A sailboat ripped from its anchor offshore and headed toward land. Thigh-deep water went five blocks north, turning hundreds of homes, bars and the Gulfport Casino into islands. A Papa John's delivery man turned around and left. People abandoned their cars and slipped off their shoes to wade through the waves.

"I've never seen it this high," said Michelle Edwards, who rents a place on 27th Avenue South and has lived in the neighborhood for a decade.


It was like this Sunday all day long and all over the area. It began with Gulfport and Tampa and Pasco County flooding as high tide surged. It ended late Sunday night with officials in Pass-a-Grille searching its darkened streets in search of roofs torn and tossed.

Tropical Storm Debby, messy, unorganized and noncommittal in its path, loitered out in the gulf and sent lashing bands of record-breaking rain over Tampa Bay and its surrounding counties.

Water does what water wants. Roads became rivers. Coffee Pot Boulevard in St. Petersburg. Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa. Gulf to Bay Boulevard in Clearwater and U.S. 19 up into Pasco. Boats were the best bet. People left their homes in kayaks and canoes.

By late Sunday night, Debby sat nearly stationary some 115 miles south-southwest of the coastal Panhandle town of Apalachicola, and the storm's unsparing rain and wind were expected to continue today and maybe into Tuesday. There was also an areawide tornado watch extending into early this morning.

"We happen to be in that band of worst weather, and we might stay there," Bay News 9's Diane Kacmarik said.

The rain, she added, was "going to be record level."

Southeast of Tampa Bay in Highlands County, Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Nell Hays said a woman was found dead in a house in the Highlands town of Venus that was destroyed in the storm. A child found in the same house was taken to the hospital. No further information was available on the child's condition or either person's age.

• • •

In Largo, Chris McCready was watching the water rise from his mobile home at Mariner's Cove, a perennially problematic flooding spot off Ulmerton Road. By 2 p.m., with the water outside chest-deep, he started to worry.

"It just kept rising and kept rising and kept rising," he said.

He started to pray.

Meanwhile, in Clearwater, at On Top of the World, the sprawling condominium complex for retirees off Belcher Road, flood waters spilled over the golf course starting at 3. Water surrounded more than a dozen buildings near the course and isolated entire blocks in the northeastern section of the development.

"The water all came over at once," said resident Maryann Mercer, 78.

She said it was only the second time in the 29 years she and her husband have lived at On Top of the World that they ended up stranded by flooding.

The Florida Highway Patrol closed the Sunshine Skyway bridge because of vicious gusts.

High tide approached.

Pasco emergency officials reported severe flooding especially in areas west of U.S. 19. The county opened the Mike Fasano Hurricane Shelter in Hudson for people who wanted to evacuate their homes.

In Tarpon Springs, Dimitri's on the Water flooded, taking on 3 to 4 inches of water, according to Andy Salivaras, the owner of Mykonos restaurant on the Sponge Docks whose son runs Dimitri's.

Clearwater police reported "widespread flooding" around the city. "Pretty much the whole beach is flooded," police spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts said.

So was the Bright House Field baseball park, and the Hyatt Regency, where workers mopped up water and lined the building with sandbags.

Thrill seekers held onto metal rails by the seawall as the waves crashed into them, even as officials urged caution. Stay inside, they said, and don't drive through unknown depths.

Up the coast, in Palm Harbor, firefighters reported swift, running water flowing over Lake St. George just north of Tampa Road and Alt. 19 N at Tampa Road.

Down in Largo, Andrea Swanson, an 18-year-old Publix cashier, sat on her couch in her second-floor condominium on Walsingham Road when it looked like the worst of the storm was over. It was around 4:30. The sky outside brightened.

She opened her door to get a better look, and what she saw was a funnel cloud, spinning over the treetops. Tree branches, dirt and garbage swirled in the air. The funnel headed her way.

A transformer nearby popped. Swanson's lights went off. Something heavy thudded against the wall of her condo. She slammed shut the door, ran into her bathroom and huddled in a corner. Debris pelted her window for what felt like the next 10 minutes, she said, and then it was quiet except for the sound of rain.

"It was here," she said, "and then it was gone."

It had ripped apart trees, torn down power lines and bent a billboard on the way to Indian Rocks Beach.

McCready, 44, from the mobile homes at Mariner's Cove, was told by firefighters to evacuate. He and his wife packed bags for a few days and headed to a makeshift shelter set up by the Red Cross, in the cafeteria of Chapel on the Hill, a church in Seminole.

It was the only shelter open in Pinellas as of the evening, according to Tom Iovino, a communications specialist with the county. Janet McGuire of the Red Cross said she had heard an estimated 50 people were on the way.

Among them: Chris Payne, 38, his wife Rani, 31, and their two children. The couple worried about their chest of family photos.

"We're kind of up in the air right now," Rani Payne said. "We don't have any family around here, and hardly any friends."

It was unclear if any tornadoes actually touched down in the Tampa Bay area. Weather officials said it was possible.

"We're so overwhelmed with normal operations that we haven't been able to send anyone out to confirm that," said Dan Noah at the National Weather Service's local office in Ruskin.

More clear was the scene in St. Petersburg's Shore Acres. Water reached the tops of fire hydrants. Siobhan Archard reached down into the foot-deep water around her on Bayou Grande Boulevard, near 62nd Avenue, and caught a squirming mullet. "Dinner tonight," someone said.

• • •

Cindy Dabill and Steve Oates know what they saw. Mother and son, 45 and 17, stood on a Pass-a-Grille pier filming the waves.

"Is that a tornado?" he said.

"Run for the truck!" she said.

They got in the truck and she hit reverse, full throttle, gas to the floor, not moving. "It picked us up 10 feet in the air," she said.

The storm ripped chunks out of the Pass-A-Grille Marina's roof.

Mike Saracusa, 67, heard a pop and looked outside his house south of the marina and his whole lanai was swept away.

"I was just sitting here, the lights kind of flickered, I looked out and the lanai was gone," he said. "It couldn't have been more than two seconds. Everything's gone at the back of the house."

Night came. Power lines were down. People milled about. Officials attempted to assess the damage. Pass-a-Grille was black.

Staff writers Drew Harwell, Peter Jamison, Diane Steinle, Kameel Stanley, Stephanie Wang, Rich Shopes and Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751.

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