Tornadoes, storms wreak sudden havoc across the Tampa Bay area

Published November 2 2018
Updated November 2 2018

Cindy Milas is certain that it was a tornado that landed in her neighborhood on Friday — right on top of her.

She had to run outside her Seminole home to get her phone out of her car that afternoon. The sky above her was dark. But she could make out debris flying around in a circle.

"I saw the circulation and the debris touch down," she said while standing in a blue raincoat on the street. The whipping wind bowed Milas’ carport and slapped it back into the ground.

"It was clearly a tornado," she said.

The Tampa Bay area was lashed by a line of storms Friday that set cell phones abuzz with tornado warnings, littered roads with trees limbs ripped down just before the afternoon commute and damaged homes. Tens of thousands were left without power.

The National Weather Service said it was investigating the possibility that several tornados touched down throughout the bay area.

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One area of possible tornado activity was reported near Milas’ home at the intersection of Park Boulevard and Starkey Road. Homes in the Seminole Country Green condominium complex there suffered roof damage, according to Seminole Fire Rescue. Several mobile homes in the nearby Conrad Mobile Home Park were also damaged, fire officials said.

The wind frightened 9-year-old Sabrina Stanley, who was riding her bike home from school when she noticed the sky darken. She said she saw two small tornados combine to form a larger one.

"I was really scared, this was my first time experiencing a tornado," she said. "I started crying."

She asked a woman for help. The stranger let Sabrina stay with her until the girl’s dad picked her up.

Fortunately, the nasty weather did not result in injuries in the Seminole area, said Assistant Fire Chief William Morelli.

"Right now we’re in cleanup mode," he said.

Public works crews stood by with chain saws, waiting for Duke Energy to turn off the power so they could safely clear the road of fallen trees limbs.

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Meteorologists were also focusing on the Carrollwood area in north Hillsborough County for possible tornado activity.

Hillsborough County Fire Rescue units were dispatched at about 3:45 p.m. to a report of a possible tornado and an injured person at the Northdale Promenade shopping plaza at 15702 N Dale Mabry Highway, said spokesman Eric Seidel. They treated a 60-year-old person there. No other details were released.

The storm reportedly caused some structural damage to the Winn-Dixie grocery store in the plaza, Seidel said. He said there were also reports of windows blown out in a building but those were still being checked out.

The Hillsborough County School District called parents to warn them that dismissal times were being delayed at schools with particularly severe weather. In most cases, students were held back for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, school officials said.

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The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office said its deputies were looking into reports that a tornado touched down in the Fairway Springs neighborhood off State Road 54 in New Port Richey.

The wind left trees uprooted or split vertically down their trunks, and residents gathered in the evening on the sidewalk, surveying downed limbs and at least one mangled lanai in a pestering drizzle.

Craig Vaughan, 73, said he was out with his dog Chase earlier in the afternoon when the clouds turned dark. He hurried inside.

"Within just a minute, it just all broke loose," he said. The wind whipped leaves by his windows.

"As soon as it started," Vaughan said, "it was over."

He soon heard the wail of a fire truck and walked outside too see a trampoline and pieces of a carport in a neighbor’s backyard, but did not recognize where they had come from.

"This is something a little different than your normal summer storm," Vaughan said.

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The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office reported trees down and roofs damaged in the area of Dunkirk Road in Spring Hill.

Thelma and Owen Guthrie returned to their Spring Hill home at about 4:15 p.m. to find their front yard on Running Oak Court littered with trees. Their roof, too.

"Owen, you gotta call Allstate (Insurance) right now," Thelma Guthrie said as she walked into the house. "We can’t sleep in a house like this."

But it did not appear that the damage extended into the interior of the home.

"Roof is expensive, though," she said. "It’s going to be a hassle."

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The storms knocked out power for tens of thousands of customers across the region. Tampa Electric Co. reported that just over 29,500 customers were without power by 4 p.m. Friday. Duke Energy Florida, which serves much of Pinellas County, reported that about 15,100 Tampa Bay area customers were without power at about that same time.

The heavy storms are part of a cold front moving through Florida. Cooler weather will follow after the storms have passed through. Saturday will be the cooler of the two weekend days, with highs in the 70s and little chance of rain. Temperatures warm to 80 on Sunday and rain is likely.

Times staff writers Malena Carollo, Tony Marrero, Justin Trombly, Luis Santana and Josh Solomon contributed to this report.