THONOTOSASSA — The six members of the Smith family huddled together in their mobile home as the wind and the rain picked up.
Suddenly, they heard snapping metal and breaking wood. Their roof was gone, blown down the street. Insulation flew into trees. Rain pummeled their belongings.
They thought it was a tornado that hit them at 2 a.m. Friday, but the National Weather Service determined it was a strong downburst of wind, possibly as strong as 50 mph.
It was part of the same severe storm system that wreaked havoc north of the Tampa Bay area, damaging homes, ripping up trees and knocking out power for thousands of homes.
The Smiths' home, 12825 Verges Road, was rendered uninhabitable, but no one was hurt.
"You know you're blessed when God protects you — when glass and wood fly all over the place, and everybody in the family walks out unscathed," said Kent Smith, who lived at the home with his wife and four children, ages 9, 14, 17 and 18. The family's two dogs escaped safely, too, but several cats were missing, he said.
Smith returned to the home later Friday morning to gather belongings and cover furniture with plastic tarps.
Debris was scattered around the property, in trees and around the nearby Nature's Classroom, which was undamaged.
The Tampa chapter of the Red Cross will provide temporary housing for the family, said spokeswoman Jan McGuire.
The same weather system raked North Florida from Tallahassee to Jacksonville on Thursday, producing at least four possible tornadoes. Starke, southwest of Jacksonville, appeared to be the hardest-hit area. No injuries were reported.
The severe weather underscored the tornado threat posed this winter by the same El Niño system that helped produce a calm hurricane season. Earlier this year, the National Weather Service warned of a stormy winter because of El Niño, which heightens the threat of tornadoes.
El Niño forms every four to seven years as warm surface waters pool in the eastern Pacific. It often leads to a calm hurricane season as upper atmospheric winds break up hurricanes forming in the Atlantic.
Tampa Bay's weekend weather should be decidedly better, with plenty of sunshine Saturday and no rain expected through Sunday afternoon, Bay News 9 reported.