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Scary skies take toll on Bay area

The heavens dealt Halloween revelers a trick.

Costumed children and adults flooded malls and churches Friday as severe thunderstorms spawned tornadoes, flooded roads and snarled traffic.

Most of west-central Florida was under a tornado watch until 8 p.m., canceling high school football games and plans for neighborhood trick or treating.

But the weather didn't wipe out the ghost and goblin spirit: It just drove it inside.

"The kids get to dress up, which is all that's important," said Melissa Becton, who visited West Shore Plaza in Tampa with her 9-month-old son, Logan, dressed as a scarecrow. "And mommy gets to shop."

The weekend picture looked brighter, with forecasters calling for highs today in the low 80s and a slim chance of showers. A cold front was expected to pass through early Sunday, bringing overnight lows in the upper 50s and daytime highs early next week in the mid-70s.

Blame Friday's ghoulish weather on the front that passed through Pinellas County on Monday, leaving $4.5-million in damage from tornadoes and drenching rains. The front made it to the Florida Straits, then made a U-turn.

On Friday, it moved north through Central Florida, bringing severe weather warnings, 50-mph winds and up to 4 inches of rain. Several funnel clouds were reported in Manatee and Sarasota counties, said the National Weather Service office in Ruskin.

In Manatee County, calf-deep water at Rogers Garden Park, a 500-unit public housing development, forced residents to evacuate. Part of the parking lot at Bradenton's DeSoto Square mall was under 4 feet of water. Some motorists had to wade through thigh-deep water to push their cars to higher ground.

In St. Petersburg, a single-engine plane skidded off the runway at Albert Whitted Airport as it tried to land. Some roads in northwest Hillsborough, including parts of Bearss Avenue, were impassable because of high water.

Troopers rushed to numerous accidents, including one involving an overturned truck on I-275 near Gandy Boulevard.

About 5 p.m. in Temple Terrace, during a lightning delay in a football game between Temple Heights Christian School and Shorecrest Prep, a funnel-shaped cloud moved across the field, briefly lifting garbage cans and debris high in the air. Players and officials had taken cover, and officials called off the game.

With many outdoor Halloween events canceled, people poured into malls in search of goodies. Crowds rivaled those during the holiday gift-buying rush. But instead of crowding stores, customers crowded mall concourses, gawking at Buzz Lightyears, Dalmatians and vampires.

"Oh, my gosh, we had the busiest trick or treating ever," said Helena Martensen, marketing director for the Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg. "I had one merchant say he went through 3,000 pieces of candy."

"It looked like a tornado was going to hit my neighborhood, so we came to the mall," said Bernadette Paris of Pinellas Park.

The story was the same throughout Tampa Bay.

"It's like the day after Thanksgiving. The main parking lot is full," said Rick Williams, director of security at Countryside Mall in Clearwater.

"It wouldn't be anywhere near as crowded if it wasn't raining," said Tampa resident Shirley Williams who visited West Shore Plaza with her granddaughter, Reed Ali, 4, who was performing karate kicks in her Power Rangers uniform. "The place is just packed."

So packed that many businesses ran out of candy long before the end of the two-hour trick-or-treating session, which began at 4:30 p.m. A hastily-scribbled sign hung in the window of The Gap store about 6 p.m., telling passers-by, "Sorry, we're out of treats."

"It's never been like this before," said Joshua Woodson, an employee at The Gap. "We ran out of stuff, like, half an hour after the thing started."

Some businesses had a difficult time turning away trick or treaters.

A flustered employee stood in front of the Sweet Factory candy store, only feet from windows filled with jelly beans and sweet tarts, trying to tell people the store had no more treats.

"Are you serious?" asked Lorraine Mortellaco when the man said the store had given out several boxes of candy. "Let me get my violin out for you."

At least one person, a security guard at Tyrone Square, saw good in the rain.

"I'm glad it rained. I love this," said Howard McLaughlin, as he handed out treats. "I'm having more fun than the kids are."

_ Times staff writers Kent Fischer, Susan Clary, Joey Johnston, G.G. Rigsby and Kathleen Cabble contributed to this report, as did information from the Associated Press.