From the archives: ‘No-name storm’ blasted Tampa Bay 25 years ago

Published March 14 2018
Updated March 14 2018

EDITORíS NOTE: The no-name storm came barreling out of the Gulf of Mexico, battering Florida with high winds and rising waters. But there was little time to regroup: With winds knocking down power lines, hundreds of thousands of people were left without power, just as the cold following the storm moved in. This story originally ran on March 14, 1993:

The storm had no name. But few will forget its angry face.

A wall of wind, rain and lightning slammed into Florida at midnight Friday. It unleashed crashing waves and deadly tornadoes, and brought frigid temperatures that kept punishing Tampa Bay and the state through the night Saturday.

"This could be the worst storm of the century," the National Weather Service declared as it issued warnings along the Eastern seaboard. In Florida, officials blamed the storm for the deaths of at least 15 people, including four children. Death came in many ways: Some perished in homes shredded by high winds, some suffered heart attacks, an elderly woman drowned, and a baby was killed by flying debris.

Winds nearing hurricane force combined with high tides to demolish homes and businesses, cut off power to 2-million Floridians and send hundreds fleeing for shelter.

Gov. Lawton Chiles declared a state of emergency in 21 counties, including Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Hernando and Citrus. President Clinton declared the counties disaster areas, making them eligible for federal aid.

Chiles flew into Pinellas at 3:35 p.m. Saturday, leaned into the wind and surveyed the damage. His assessment: "Itís a mess."

Meanwhile, local officials scrambled to evacuate stranded residents, prevent power outages and open shelters.

"This is not a foot or two of water. People are being forced into the second floor of their houses," said Hernando County Commission Chairman Tony Mosca Jr., who helped evacuate residents in Hernando Beach. "Itís not a nuisance, itís a disaster."

Among those who died in the storm was a 58-year-old Hernando County man who was helping to rescue people from their flooded homes. William G. Hahn of Aripeka died after falling in his boat and striking his head, police said.

"He was up early in the morning driving his boat, taking people out of their homes," said Hernando sheriffís spokesman Frank Bierwiler.

PHOTO GALLERY: Remembering the no-name storm of 1993

In Pasco County, three people died from storm-related causes. One was an 87-year-old Hudson woman, whose body was found floating by sheriffís deputies Saturday afternoon. The woman had drowned.

In Pinellas County, the Coast Guard brought in the body of Verlin Lewis, 47, of Cocoa Beach. He drowned when his fishing boat capsized off Tarpon Springs.

And in Chiefland, a woman and her 4-year-old niece died when a tornado obliterated their house.

John Donaldson, a lifelong Chiefland resident, said his family was sleeping inside his house when the storm hit.

"Everybody got down on the floor and prayed," he said.

The storm formed when arctic air from Canada skated across the nation, dumping snow and whipping up winter winds. Mixing with the warmer air over the Gulf of Mexico, the no-name monster whipped the calm gulf waters into a frenzy of roof-high waves.

Boaters began flooding the Coast Guard with calls for help. At 10:10 a.m. Saturday, a Coast Guard helicopter plucked three men from a life raft 60 miles west of Tampa after their fishing boat, the Erin Moore, sank. They were flown to shore, suffering from hypothermia.

In the Tampa Bay area, the storm washed ashore around midnight, packing winds as high as 90 miles per hour and prompting reports of tornadoes in or near Treasure Island, New Port Richey, Crystal River, Tarpon Springs and Brooksville. Tides ran 2 to 5 feet above normal, flooding beaches, roads and buildings.

Paul Nygaard, maintenance man at the Starlight Tower Condominium in St. Petersburg Beach, shivered as he yanked rubber boots onto his feet. Shaking his head, he surveyed the damage.

The waves had pounded a freshly repaired sea wall to rubble. Glass shards hung like icicles from bent window frames. The pool had become one with the gulf.

"We got hit pretty hard."

The storm hit at a strange time, after the usual rash of winter storms and long before the summer hurricane season. Officials did their best to evacuate residents in low-lying areas, but the stormís broad sweep put some agencies under a terrible strain.

In Citrus County, sheriffís spokeswoman Gail Tierney took to the radio to ask residents to donate their boats for rescue efforts. "Right now," she said, "the west side is truly under water."

In Pasco County, disaster officials were caught unaware, with evacuation efforts not starting until after waters had risen dangerously. Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher said, "I think it caught everybody all along the coast by surprise."

In the Clearwater area, downed telephone and power lines slowed the evacuation. When his police Jeep could no longer motor through the 5-foot water, Joe Rinaldi got out and swam to the home of some elderly residents who had climbed into their attic.

The Jeep floated away, but Rinaldi safely rescued the residents.

"They were trapped inside and they were scared," Rinaldi said later, still wet and shivering in the frosty wind. "We had to get them out."

Some people found their own escape routes.

FROM 2013: Journalist recalls personal horror from 1993 Ďno-name ntormí

By 6 a.m. Saturday, the water had risen to Pat Sarsonís knees in the Dunedin home where she was vacationing from Massachusetts. When she and her family looked outside, they saw a boat floating by.

They grabbed it and floated to dry land.

"I canít believe this," said Mrs. Sarson. "Yesterday, I was having a wonderful time at the beach."

Everywhere, the storm brought destruction and dislocation.

As they had during 1985ís Hurricane Elena, Pinellas County residents found themselves isolated. Officials closed the Courtney Campbell Parkway and Howard Frankland bridges, leaving motorists only one route across the bay.

At the peak of the tourist season, some attractions had to shut down or scale back their operations. In Pasco County, the Chasco Fiesta Street Parade was called off. The Citrus County Fair lost its $450,000 Sky Diver ride to the winds. And in St. Petersburg, heavy winds and flying debris closed The Pier.

Larry Green, a Canadian tourist, had driven to The Pier on Saturday with camcorder in hand, hoping to shoot memorable footage of his family at play in the sun.

"Instead, here I am on a typical March Florida day," he said, "with the kids blowing everywhere."

The lottery, however, went on.

Ed George, communications director for the Florida lottery, said power outages across the state had no measurable effect on ticket sales for the $40-million jackpot.

Coastal flood warnings stayed in effect through Saturday night, but forecasters said they expected the winds to diminish as the temperature dropped into the 30s overnight. Sunday should be partly cloudy, with a high in the low 50s.

That forecast may warm those whose homes escaped serious damage. But it will do little to comfort Denice and Rob Whipp.

The Whipps awoke Saturday morning to find their double-wide mobile home in Weeki Wachee Gardens swamped by 3 feet of water. They considered braving the elements, but decided that would pose too great of a risk to their 4-year-old son, Cory. Instead, they threw some belongings in a suitcase and fled in a boat.

"We lost everything," said Mrs. Whipp. "Itís scary, not knowing where weíre going to go or what weíre going to do."

This article was based on information from Times staff writers Bob Port, Chuck Murphy, Jenny Deam, Monica Davey, Bill Moss, Steve Persall, Jane Meinhardt, Kaylois Henry, Victoria White, Sabrina Miller, Brian Chichester, Dan DeWitt, Mike Konrad, Bill Adair, David K. Rogers, Bill Duryea and the Associated Press.