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Winds and rains whip through parts of state

Tornadoes and severe thunderstorms near Panama City destroyed and damaged homes, flipped cars and left thousands of Floridians without electricity Saturday as severe weather rolled across northern portions of the state.

A squall line that caused the thunderstorms, hail and high winds was moving ahead of the huge snowstorm blowing across the Midwest toward Tallahassee and on up the East Coast.

The squall line began crossing West Central Florida about 11 p.m. At midnight, emergency crews throughout Pinellas County were responding to downed power lines and scattered fires caused by lightning.

The cold front behind the squall should reach the Tampa Bay area today.

"The temperature will start dropping in the early afternoon and will get progressively colder," said Karl Loeper, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

Local thermometers should dip into the mid-40s tonight and should rise only into the 50s Monday before dropping into the low 40s or even the upper 30s the next night.

Earlier Saturday, a severe storm dumped 31 inches of rain on north Palm Beach County, damaging homes and flooding dozens of streets.

No injuries were reported, but damage reports were widespread. Nearly 100 homes were flooded in the county, said Palm Beach County Emergency Management Director William O'Brien.

The unusually heavy rains were responsible for extensive street flooding along both sides of Interstate 95.

The Florida Highway Patrol closed 2 miles of northbound lanes on I-95 in northern Palm Beach County after the storm washed away sand and created a 30-foot-wide and 20-foot-deep hole alongside the road, said FHP Lt. Pembrook Burrows.

By evening, two northbound lanes reopened, but one lane would remain closed at least until Monday, Burrows said.

In the Panhandle, a Bay County sheriff's spokesman said officials think two tornadoes touched down. Lt. Greg Peel said 10-15 houses were total losses, and at least four other homes had their roofs blown off.

Five cars on a bridge got flipped over _ and blown off the bridge _ by a passing funnel cloud, Peel said. Some of the motorists suffered minor injuries.

Peel said 2,000 to 4,000 Bay County customers were still without electricity early Saturday evening, nearly five hours after the stormy weather whipped through.

_ Staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this report.

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