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Storm tears through Suncoast

A small tornado ripped through Pinellas County early Monday, peeling off roofs, snapping utility poles and shredding trees as it cut a swath of damage estimated at more than $1-million.

At least a dozen houses were uninhabitable, forcing emergency officials to open two shelters. About 18,000 people north of Ulmerton Road lost power. Downed trees and debris from buildings blocked roads.

Six people had minor injuries, including four Clearwater High School students who were in the gymnasium when part of the roof collapsed.

The county's emergency management office had initial reports of damage to about 30 single-family homes, at least 14 apartments and a dozen businesses or other buildings. Gary Vickers, emergency management coordinator, said assessment for a monetary damage estimate was incomplete.

Rowland Herald, Clearwater's interim fire chief, said his department put preliminary damage at $1-million. Jim Collins, Largo emergency management official, estimated damage there at $200,000.

Other communities in the Tampa Bay area also experienced bad weather, contributing to an increase in car crashes due to wet roads.

By day's end, according to Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Harry Mofield, there were 27 accidents in Pinellas and 25 in Hillsborough on county and state-maintained roads.

In St. Petersburg, strong winds snapped power lines, forcing the St. Petersburg/Suncoast Medical Group on Fifth Avenue N to use emergency generators for an hour after the clinic lost electricity.

Later in the day, a utility pole fell on a school bus on Bayou Boulevard and 6th Street S. No students were on board, and the driver was not injured.

Across the bay, in east Tampa, a small tornado was reported.

"I heard on the radio there was a tornado in St. Pete and "bam,' it was here," said H.D. Frotscher, who works at Bayside Auto Auction in Tampa. "You could see bolts of power going across the street."

And in Hernando County, a lightning strike caused a house fire in Spring Hill. The bolt traveled through a sprinkler system and caused $25,000 in damage.

High winds and heavy rains prevented a helicopter in Hernando County from flying a 19-year-old accident victim to a nearby trauma center. Joseph P. Benaquisto, of Spring Hill, was taken to Spring Hill Regional Hospital after he drove into the side of a Coca-Cola delivery truck that pulled from a grocery store onto a thoroughfare.

The front first began causing trouble in Florida on Friday, when a tornado turned over trucks near Panama City. Over the weekend, tornadoes struck several Panhandle towns, and rough seas caused a tourist from Tennessee to drown while swimming off Santa Rosa Island near Pensacola Beach.

On Monday, the front arrived in the Tampa Bay area, with Pinellas County being the hardest hit.

Spawned by severe thunderstorms from an approaching cold front, a tornado swept ashore from the Gulf of Mexico at Indian Rocks Beach about 8:40 a.m. and skipped northeasterly across the county. According to the National Weather Service, a tornado warning was issued at 8:34 a.m.

"More than likely, it was just one tornado, a small one, that came ashore," meteorologist Walt Zaleski said. "It was lifting and dropping, and the damage was very concentrated."

The tornado was either a Category 0, with 40- to 72-mph winds, or a Category 1, with 73- to 112-mph winds, he said. A Category 5, the highest on the scale, has winds of more than 260 mph.

Tornadoes' northeasterly movement is familiar to people who live in the area. The central part of Pinellas has had so many damaging storms over the years that some people have dubbed it "tornado alley." Damaging storms hit the Largo-Seminole area in 1971, '73, '76, '78, '79 and '92.

By noon Monday, orange notices condemned several of about a dozen cottages and houses damaged in the 600 and 700 block of Gulf Boulevard. Pink puffs of wet insulation were plastered on buildings that had holes where roofs had been. A catamaran was blown from the beach and over a cottage, landing on a car.

At least six houses were damaged as the tornado moved toward La Hacienda Drive on Indian Rocks Beach. One house was damaged when lightning caused a fire.

Most of the residential damage was in Largo, along two blocks of Beverly Avenue east of Clearwater-Largo Road, where several houses were roofless. About 10 houses were damaged; at least four were uninhabitable. The remnants of huge trees were draped over crushed houses. A concrete-filled, metal stand that held a basketball hoop was snapped.

"It was raining really hard, and all I saw was blackness in the sky and then lightning with a roaring sound," said Joe Avery, who was picking up a friend on Beverly. "My car started rocking. The trees were splitting and the tops (of trees) were flying through the air."

Missouri Avenue Baptist Church lost part of its roof. It landed on two cars that were stopped at the intersection of Belleair Road and then blew across the street to Checkers, where three employees huddled on the floor as glass shattered. Utility poles snapped, dropping power lines across Missouri. A metal rod was driven into a parked car.

Sixty-five students were inside the Clearwater High School gymnasium when the tornado hit. Part of the roof caved in, injuring four students.

"It all happened so quickly," principal Nick Grasso said. "It came from nowhere. We didn't have time to do anything."

A friend in Belleair called Betty Poole and warned her that a tornado might be headed her way. Poole, 62, laid on the floor of her house near Clearwater High.

"That very instant, it was like the earth moved," Poole said. "I thought I was going to die."

Her trees were damaged, and the tornado left a dozen residents homeless at nearby Sterling Apartments on Nimbus Avenue. Most of the nine units were waterlogged and littered with debris.

At least 14 apartments were damaged at the 324-unit Starcrest Village complex at Cleveland and Main streets. One man had minor cuts and bruises. The complex is expected to be without power through today.

Class had just started at Skycrest Christian School when the tornado whipped through the campus. An empty school bus was overturned. Four classrooms and the gymnasium were damaged.

Today's forecast looks good for cleanup.

In the path of the storm

1. Gulf front cottages and houses are damaged in the 600-700 block of Gulf Boulevard in Indian Rocks Beach. Eight have moderate damage, four extensive damage. Residents are evacuated.

2. Six houses are damaged on La Hacienda Drive in Indian Rocks Beach.

3. Ten houses are damaged, four condemned along Beverly Avenue between Clearwater-Largo Road and the Pinellas Trail. Also reported are torn off roofs and trees falling on houses.

4. Part of a roof is torn off the Missouri Avenue Baptist Church at the northwest corner of Belleair Road and Missouri Avenue. At the northeast corner, a Checkers Drive-In Restaurant is heavily damaged.

5. Part of Clearwater High School's gymnasium roof falls in; four students are slightly injured. Windows are broken, and the football scoreboard crumbles.

6. Windows are broken, a large metal awning falls and a roof is damaged at businesses on the south side of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, east of Clearwater High.

7. At a 7-Eleven on the northwest corner of Nimbus Avenue and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, the roof is torn off the store and the roof over the gas pumps collapses. Nine units at the Sterling Apartments suffer severe damage.

8. Metal carports fall, windows are broken and holes are made in the roof at the Lake Starcrest Village Apartments.

9. A bus is overturned and cars, awnings and a roof are damaged at Skycrest Christian School.

10. Trees are downed and minor damage is reported to houses in two neighborhoods between NE Coachman Road and Drew Street.

_ Times staff writers Amelia Davis, Anita Kumar, Kristine Millen, Thomas C. Tobin, Maureen Byrne, Wilma Norton, Joe Newman, Tim Roche, Susan Clary, Kim Gilmore and Leanora Minai contributed to this report.

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