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Untold damage left by wave of storms

The massive storm system that rolled through Tampa Bay on Thursday paralyzed the region for almost the entire day with drenching rains and damaging winds.

By the time night fell and the worst of the storms were over, more than 100,000 people had lost power — with some not expected to get electricity back until late today.

Bay News 9 forecasters said at least two tornadoes formed during the day, though the National Weather Service had confirmed only one by Thursday night. None of the reported twisters caused catastrophic damage.

But strong winds — which were measured at 88 mph on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge — overturned airplanes and collapsed a hangar at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

The winds also flung a semitrailer truck, a box truck and a travel trailer on their sides.

Dozens of homes were damaged by falling trees or had their pool cages crumpled, their fences flattened, their mailboxes plucked. The winds even pried the top floor off a two-story home on Indian Rocks Beach.

The storm also strafed the Pinellas Hope shelter, leaving those who had had so little before the storm with closer to nothing.

Drivers throughout the region had to navigate around flipped cars, buckled trees, broken signs and swinging power lines. Torrential downpours flooded roads and blocked traffic. St. Petersburg and Tampa had record rainfall totals by 5 p.m.

"I never was this scared in the 31 years of my life in Florida," said Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni, who witnessed the force of the storm as he drove near the airport about 11:30 a.m.

Power poles snapped in front of him, sending sparks flying as they collapsed. The wind and rain were like waves, he said.

Across the bay, Riverview resident Cheryl Mestas, 63, was inside her home with her two grown daughters and grandson when they heard a loud noise and ran to the window.

"We all just started screaming," Mestas said.

Three trees had fallen, damaging two cars and a garage.

Forecasters had been anticipating severe weather, but said the storms were more powerful than they expected. "This is not common," said Bay News 9 meteorologist Diane Kacmarik. "We only get long-track tornadoes here about once every 10 years."

Many factors caused the storms, including a cold front to the north combined with strong south winds.

Remarkably, no one was killed, or seriously injured.

And today is supposed to be a beautiful day.

Pinellas

A strong line of storms came ashore in Pinellas County midmorning.

At 10:30 a.m., Virginia Armstrong, 91, was in her pajamas in her Indian Rocks Beach home, unaware that wicked weather was headed her way.

Her daughter, DeeJane Armstrong, was watching the weather on TV in her St. Petersburg apartment. She called her mother and told her a tornado was heading her way.

Still wearing her pajamas, Virginia Armstrong scooted out of the home and went to the police station for shelter.

Within minutes, the storm pried the top floor off the two-story home and deposited it in pieces. The home was destroyed.

The storm marched east.

Within an hour, there were reports of widespread damage, including flipped and damaged planes at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport, a bent radio tower at the nearby sheriff's headquarters in Largo and flooding in Tarpon Springs that flushed water into homes.

There also were several reports of a tornado touching down along 113th Avenue and moving east to the Largo Mall.

At the nearby Oasis Mobile Home Park on Seminole Boulevard, Stewart and Jill Pounds — and their cat, Mandi — were inside a 26-foot travel trailer.

"The trailer shook a couple of times and it just went over," said Stewart Pounds, 52, a snowbird from Michigan.

He freed his wife from under a mattress and they crawled out of an emergency window. He went back in and rescued Mandi, too.

Residents at Pinellas Hope weren't so lucky.

The storm caused up to $50,0000 in damage at the outdoor tent city for homeless people. At least 70 tents were destroyed and up to 30 more damaged at the 10-acre site in unincorporated Pinellas.

As the storms neared, the roughly 85 residents on site gathered what they could and waited inside an office and community building. The power went out.

Outside, the storm rumbled. Most of the tents were flattened or impaled with tree limbs.

"Mine was annihilated," said Angela Dent, 21, who took comfort in saving pictures of her 2-year-old son, Mason.

By midday in St. Petersburg, fire crews had responded to 115 storm-related incidents, including one on the Howard Frankland Bridge in which a semitrailer truck blew over onto two vehicles. No one was seriously injured.

Hillsborough

Buildings were damaged, trees toppled on homes, power lines swung to the ground, roads flooded and more than 80,000 people lost power in Hillsborough County.

Tornado sightings came from South Tampa, Lutz, New Tampa and east Hillsborough.

More than two dozen homes in the Progress Village area were damaged. Roofs were torn off, carports were crushed. Power lines were strewn like spaghetti.

Power won't be fully restored until today, Sheriff David Gee said. The American Red Cross opened two shelters.

Tampa resident Jason Boone, 32, had a nasty cut across his nose after the wind ripped the roof off of his art studio near Interbay and Bayshore boulevards.

At the Morning Glory Preschool off Bloomingdale Avenue, about 60 kids, ages 1 to 5, huddled in a room as the storm rolled past, said principal Judy Bowser. A tree fell on a car outside, but no one heard the crash because the children were screaming. "The kids were scared, but we got where we needed to be," she said.

Air traffic was halted at Tampa International Airport for about an hour after a twister was seen near the Howard Frankland Bridge about 11:15 a.m., said spokeswoman Brenda Geohagan. Nearly 100 flights were delayed, a handful were canceled.

North Suncoast

Pat Pannullo heard a terrible roar outside her Land O'Lakes home Thursday morning. When it subsided, she went out to survey the damage.

Winds ripped up the screened enclosure for her pool. A tree cracked and landed on top of her shed. Debris was everywhere.

"Yesterday this was my dream house," said Pannullo, 62, who moved into the Lake Padgett Estates home in October. "Today it's my mess."

At Gulfside Elementary in Holiday, a custodian was indirectly hit by lightning Thursday morning while walking under a covered walkway before classes began. He was alert but was taken to the hospital as a precaution, school officials said.

Elsewhere

Central Florida authorities said seven people suffered minor injuries when a tent collapsed during severe weather at the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, the site of the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In, an annual aviation expo.

Four confirmed tornadoes were sighted in Polk County, officials said. Several possible tornadoes also were spotted in Orange, Seminole and Lake counties, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Times staff writers Emily Nipps, Michael Van Sickler, Danny Valentine, Illeana Morales, Lorri Helfand, Joey Flechas, Keyonna Summers, Drew Harwell, Demorris Lee, Jeff Solochek, Tom Marshall, Shelley Rossetter, Stephanie Wang, Robbyn Mitchell and Luis Perez and Times photographers Bryan Thomas Brendan Fitterer contributed to this report, which also used informaiton from the the Associated Press.

Tracking storm reports

Preliminary storm reports from the National Weather Service show where severe weather occurred thus far Thursday. Red markers denote tornado reports; green ones denote hail; blue markers indicate high winds. Click markers for more information.


View Severe weather in a larger map

Untold damage left by wave of storms 03/31/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2011 11:45pm]
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