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Weekend thunderstorms tear across Tampa Bay area

Severe thunderstorms stomped across the Tampa Bay area Saturday night, tearing off roofs, flooding coastal areas and knocking out power to 24,000 households.

The worst damage was reported at the Fern Hill Mobile Home Park in Riverview, which was littered with debris Sunday. Two mobile homes were destroyed and seven others damaged, as winds gusted as high as 80 mph in southern Hillsborough County.

Michael Montgomery said it took seconds for the storm to level his home about 11:30 p.m.

"I heard a really terrible loud noise, like a train, and it all happened so fast," said the 33-year-old. He watched the destruction from the safety of the nearby brick house of his parents, the park owners.

He ran outside and tried to alert other residents, but he didn't get to James Hardy fast enough.

Hardy suffered a dislocated shoulder, bruises and burns from power lines when winds collapsed his home, said his fiance, Janice Keller. They are temporarily staying at a hotel with the help of the American Red Cross, Keller said.

In central Pinellas County, blustering winds along Bay Pines Boulevard snapped four of six wooden telephone poles holding a billboard advertising the St. Petersburg Resort KOA Kampground. The sign plunged into Caz's Gourmet English Fish & Chips, puncturing the restaurant's tile roof.

"I think it was more than just wind," said Mike Molthop, the Kampground's manager, though there were no confirmed tornadoes in Pinellas.

The chain of thunderstorms preceded a cold front, which dumped record-high snow on Midwestern cities and airports over the weekend. The squall line that caused so much damage evolved as the cold front pushed out warmer air over the coast.

As the front moved into Florida on Sunday afternoon, Dan Sobien, a National Weather Service meteorologist, predicted lows in the 30s this week, with possible freezes as far south as Hillsborough.

The storms cut off electricity to about 62,000 Florida Power customers in Central and North Florida. More than 24,000 households lost power in the Tampa Bay area.

Streets and a few homes also flooded in Pinellas County, but the storm surge of 3-4 feet late Saturday stopped within inches of widespread damage to homes.

The flood watch issued Saturday by the National Weather Service did not include Pinellas but encompassed Pasco north to the Suwannee River. Many Pinellas residents were surprised by the flooding.

"I heard not one word about this on television. That's my gripe for today," said Bob Driver, 68, of Indian Rocks Beach, whose 16th Avenue home was invaded by an inch of water.

On the Anclote River, near the Pasco border, Tarpon Springs merchants near the city's historic Sponge Docks said the surge came suddenly.

"The tide came in so fast, we had no chance to do anything," said Theo Manglis, who owns two Greek restaurants.

As Manglis watched, about six inches of water seeped into Dino's Restaurant, which was serving customers about 11 p.m. Saturday while a Greek band played. His other restaurant, the Santorini Greek Grill, was flooded by a foot of water that shorted out coolers and other equipment. Manglis watched as the wind freed a large fishing boat that hit three smaller boats tied to docks.

The flooding couldn't have come at a worse time. Wednesday, Tarpon Springs is expecting a crowd of 25,000 to 35,000 for Epiphany, a Greek Orthodox celebration that concludes with youths diving into a bayou in search of a ceremonial cross.

In Pasco County, tides were reported at 4-6 feet above normal. Worst hit were homes near the mouth of the Pithlachascotee River in Port Richey. Ruined carpet began to pile up on street curbs.

In Hernando County, one home was severely damaged. Karen Arbolaez awoke to what she thought was gunfire about 10:30 p.m. Saturday as winds ripped off half her roof.

"I thought the roof was going to cave in," she said Sunday. Water poured into the house in west Hernando, running down walls like a waterfall.

In North Port, about an hour south of St. Petersburg, about 30 mobile homes were damaged at La Casa Mobile Home Park, when a possible tornado ripped off aluminum roofs and carports, the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office reported. No one was injured, and damage was estimated at more than $100,000.

Elsewhere in Florida, four twisters touched down Saturday in the Panhandle, damaging 36 homes in Bay County, including 10 that are uninhabitable, emergency management officials said. The tornadoes included a water spout that traveled onto land, causing a multiple-car pileup on the Hathaway Bridge near Panama City.

_ Information from the Associated Press and Times staff writers Joy Davis-Platt, Amy Herdy and James Thorner was used in this report.