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Remembering the 'storm of the century’ that ravaged the Tampa Bay area 40 years ago today

Thousands fled from their homes as flood waters rose and twisters ripped buildings apart.
Mike and Lor Copperwheat were stranded on their car on Grove Street near 10th Avenue N. A boiling black sky threw a threatening storm canopy over the Tampa Bay area and blitzed the metropolitan area with at least two twisters, gale force winds clocked at 50, 60 and even 90 miles per hour and rains that measured up to 10 whopping inches. Times (1979)
Mike and Lor Copperwheat were stranded on their car on Grove Street near 10th Avenue N. A boiling black sky threw a threatening storm canopy over the Tampa Bay area and blitzed the metropolitan area with at least two twisters, gale force winds clocked at 50, 60 and even 90 miles per hour and rains that measured up to 10 whopping inches. Times (1979)
Published May 8, 2019|Updated May 8, 2019

The newspaper that day was filled with moments of horror from around the Tampa Bay area:

Carl Hansen of Treasure Island looked outside and found a boat in his swimming pool.

A 45-foot-yacht slammed into Thelma Garrison’s yard, crushing her station wagon and crashing into her home.

Joan Henniger, owner of Log Cabin Garden and Pet Center, watched in disbelief as nearly $10,000 in flowers, plants and puppies still in their cages floated down Central Avenue and First Avenue S.

“The guy who sold us insurance told us we didn’t need coverage against flooding,” she told the St. Petersburg Times.

Today marks 40 years since the storm of May 8, 1979. Several died, including Larry P. Dumas, 17, from Bradenton, and Clara Yarn, 26, of Clearwater. A headline in the St. Petersburg Times said it may very well have been the storm of the century.

A woman selects the only practical method of travel as she inspects the damage to the outside of her house. Times (1979)
A woman selects the only practical method of travel as she inspects the damage to the outside of her house. Times (1979)

Ten thousand people lost power, and streets around Pinellas, Hillsborough and Polk were flooded. The storm’s 19.64 inches still holds the area record for the most rainfall in May.

Tarpon Springs’ sewers overflowed. In Palm Harbor, drainage problems invited local wildlife.

“There are water moccasins all over the place,” a woman told the Times.

All around town, business came to a halt. Stores closed early and sent night workers home. USF canceled classes that afternoon and evening.

Tampa International Airport had to temporarily evacuate the control tower after 108-mile-per-hour winds rushed past. Two four-seater cargo planes were decimated by a tornado.

Students in this Hernando County school bus use a boat to escape the flooded roadway. Times (1979)
Students in this Hernando County school bus use a boat to escape the flooded roadway. Times (1979)

In Treasure Island, a tornado ripped the roofs off of homes and businesses. Nearly every street in Madeira Beach flooded.

“An untold number of cars were stranded by wet spark plugs and fender-deep water,” the Times reported.

Keith Hansford, 16, rides quarter horse named King to the rescue.
The phone line went dead just after Roger Smith heard his mother say the water was inches below her mobile home. Times (1979)
Keith Hansford, 16, rides quarter horse named King to the rescue. The phone line went dead just after Roger Smith heard his mother say the water was inches below her mobile home. Times (1979)

Here are a few stories from the archives published in the Times the day after the storm.

Torrential rain, twisters slash Suncoast; at least 2 drown

By Craig L. Basse, Times Staff Writer

Tons of rain, driven by glass-shattering, twisting winds, pounded the heart of the Suncoast Tuesday, swamping motorists and dealing death. Two –– probably three –– persons perished in St. Petersburg’s rampaging waters. It was a record-breaking rain in a traditionally dry month.

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And as torrents flooded the north Suncoast, a mother and two children were killed in a two-car auto crash on a rain-slick highway in Hernando County.

Another weather-related death was reported in Auburndale, as the tempest knifed into Central Florida.

In Pinellas Park, a woman was cut when a tornado touched down around noon at Tree Land Mobile Home Park, 126th Avenue and 66th Street. She was taken to a hospital.

Mobile home dwellers suffered all across Florida's midsection.

Spinning out of a day-long spring storm, more than a dozen tornadoes raked the Tampa Bay area, primarily north and east of Tampa. Among the targets was Tampa International Airport.

"It behaved like a squall line, but it didn't move very fast," said a spokesman at the U.S. Weather Bureau at Ruskin. "We had been watching it out in the gulf and forecasting it for days, but it was slow getting here."

Other twisters struck south of Clearwater, at an elementary school near Brandon and at Daytona Beach (Volusia County), on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Between 200 and 300 mobile homes were damaged in Volusia County, according to the sheriffs office. Two women received minor injuries.

Times (1979)
Times (1979)

In Auburndale, a Polk County town, a tornado cut through a complex containing middle and high schools, which have about 2,850 students. At the middle school, the roof of one classroom building was ripped off. Another roof collapsed. High School Principal John Stewart said a dozen students were sent to hospitals for treatment, mostly for cuts and bruises.

David Sutherland II, a math teacher, said: "We were very fortunate. The calm approach that everybody took saved us."

He credited disaster drills that the school has staged since a twister struck High Point Elementary School in Largo on May 4, 1978, killing three youngsters.

The Big Adams Packing Association citrus plant west of Auburndale was heavily damaged.

Wally Adams, a vice president, estimated damage at more than $2-million. When an ammonia line burst inside the plant, spreading fumes, the plant was evacuated, the county Civil Defense office said.

A stalled car on Main Street in New Port Richey holds up traffic in both lanes. Times (1979)
A stalled car on Main Street in New Port Richey holds up traffic in both lanes. Times (1979)

An unidentified elderly woman was reported killed and 30 to 40 other persons were hurt, none seriously, when a twister ripped through the Sun Acres mobile home park south of Auburndale.

Officers estimated that perhaps 200 mobile homes were destroyed with another 50 to 100 damaged. Hospitals in Winter Haven and Lakeland reported treating about 40 persons for injuries related to the storm. Col. Frank Persons, a spokesman for the National Guard, said Gov. Bob Graham ordered a 60-man battery from neighboring Winter Haven to the stricken Auburndale area.

The flooding in Pinellas County was the worst since June 1974 when storms dumped 19 inches of rain and caused damage that ran into the millions of dollars.

Death and destruction hit hardest in St. Petersburg, which was one of two Pinellas County cities Seminole was the other where rainfall amounting to 16 inches was unofficially recorded in a 24-hour period. One St. Petersburg city official said the total was 18 inches. This topped St. Petersburg's 63-year-old mark for a 24-hour period of 15.45 inches.

The storm brought human suffering and dismay. Hundreds of persons abandoned their homes and apartments.

Pinellas Civil Defense Director Tom Korth estimated that 2,700 persons were evacuated countywide.

"A lot of people went to friends or relatives (rather than public shelters), and many of them will be able to go home (Tuesday night)," Korth said.

Jim York, chairman of the Pinellas County Advisory Committee and manager of the Upper Pinellas Chapter of the Red Cross, said 610 persons were in public shelters at 5:30 p.m.

A young biker on Snell Isle Boulevard makes the best of a free bike wash. Times (1979)
A young biker on Snell Isle Boulevard makes the best of a free bike wash. Times (1979)

She drowned right before my eyes

By Helen Huntley, Times Staff Writer

A woman died in the turbulent waters of Booker Creek Tuesday morning right before my eyes.

The driving rain had sent the creek's waters overflowing into Roger Park Drive, making it impossible to tell where the street ended and the creek began.

Only a few minutes before, I had tried to navigate the steep drive myself, heading down from Ninth Street in my small blue car. When I hit the flood waters, however, I put the car in reverse and retreated to higher ground. I parked the car and got out and walked, slogging through the knee-deep water in my tennis shoes, trying to find out what damage the flood had done.

Nineteen-year-old Michael Frederick had come down the drive from the other direction, returning home from the Open Pantry store on Fourth Street, where he had gone to buy some Fruit Loops and milk for breakfast. When he hit the flood, his brakes failed and his car stalled in the street.

I walked over, soggy notebook in hand, to interview him about his troubles. As we stood talking in the middle of Roger Park Drive, just west of the Sixth Street bridge, a blue pickup truck came toward us from Ninth Street, water up over the wheels.

“Surely the truck will turn back,” I thought.

But Norah Smith kept driving. As Frederick and I watched in disbelief, the truck floated or drove into the creek, the water rising steadily up the door.

The scene was so unreal, felt like I was watching a movie. In real life, you just don’t see things like that.

“This can't be happening," I thought. "They'll jump out of the car in a minute. Everything will be all right.”

But it was happening. The water was up to the truck's windows snd the truck was caught up in the current hurtling toward the concrete bridge. Frederick and I ran over to the edge of the street, shouting at the truck.

We couldn't see the people inside.

"Roll down your windows!" we both were shouting. "Roll down your windows! Get out! Get out!"

Fifteen year old Eddie Hars was riding on the passenger side and heard our cries. The driver, Norah Smith, apparently did not. Just seconds before the truck smashed into the bridge, Eddie climbed out the window.

Frederick reached down to try to pull Eddie out of the water, but the strong current sucked Eddie under the bridge.

We ran to the other side of the bridge, and Frederick climbed onto a concrete abutment that juts across the creek. Miraculously, Eddie's head bobbed to the surface. When the creek tried to push him past the abutment, he grabbed onto the concrete and Frederick pulled him to safety. If Frederick had not been there at that moment, Eddie most certainly would be dead.

With Eddie on the shore gasping for breath, Frederick and I stared into the murky waters, looking for some sign of the driver. Seat cushions and twisted pieces of the aluminum camper that had been on the back of the truck floated by.

“Where is she? Where is she"” Eddie began crying out. I felt helpless. Only a few feet from where I stood was a woman drowning if she had survived the crush into the bridge. Perhaps she was trapped in the truck, caught under the bridge.

"Could I save her?” I asked myself. I felt like I should do something that I should jump in the water and try-to find her. But I was afraid. Afraid that neither one of us would come out of the turbulent creek alive.

So instead. I ran for help while Frederick watched the rushing water.

“Call the police! Call the police'” I shouted at a passing van and at a neighbor woman who came to her door to see what the commotion was about.

Then Minnie Lee Norwood drove up, on her why to All Children's Hospital, where her godchildren were to visit the clinic.

"Call the police!" I shouted at her "A woman is drowning " Suddenly, the woman's body floated to the surface of t he creek.

“There’s her body!” Frederick shouted. We don’t know how she got free of the truck, but there she was - floating face down. You could see the white, white skin of her black as her blouse floated up over her head. Frederick said he saw some blood, but we do not know if she was already dead.

“You grab her and I'll grab you,” I said to Frederick, who was already leaning over the water, holding onto a small pedestrian bridge.

He grabbed the back of her bra, but the current was too strong for him to him to hold on. Her body disappeared under the bridge. I ran to the other side, expecting her to come out, but doubting we would be able to rescue her even if she still were alive. We never saw her again.

Mrs. Norwood hurried to the hospital, which called the police and sent over several employees to help. By then, it was too late. The policemen, firemen and neighborhood volunteers probed the raging waters of the creek for several hours.

They found no sign of the woman or of the truck.

Then, my reporter's instincts took over.

I began interviewing Eddie, trying without success to make my ballpoint pen write in my soggy notebook.

Borrowing a pencil from one of the rescue workers, I wrote down Eddie's story.

Mrs. Smith, 53, was a counselor at San Antonio Hoys Village near Dade City. Eddie, 15, had been living there for about a month and a half. An eighth grader at Dade City Junior High School, he said the court sent him to the village for fighting.

Mrs. Smith was taking him to All Children's Hospital for a routine checkup. They were about half an hour late for their 10 a.m. appointment when the truck made its fatal turn.

Eddie doesn’t know why Mrs. Smith chose Hoser Park Drive instead of the safer Sixth Avenue S.

"We thought it was the road," he said. "All of a sudden, the truck started sinking. The last thing she said was that she was scared ... I thought I was going to die. When I went under that bridge, I thought I wasn't going to come back up."

He came through it with only a few minor scrapes on his arms. His wallet was still in his back pocket.

For another hour or so, Eddie, Frederick and I sat in our soaking wet clothes in a police car, waiting to give our report of the accident. Although the rain continued, the water in the creek began going down. When I walked back up Roser Park Drive to my car, the street was nearly dry. I could see no wreckage; no sign of the accident except a few scratches in the paint on the Sixth Street bridge.

It was almost as though it had never happened.

According to her personnel file at the Hoys Village, Mrs. Smith lived at 102 W. Church Ave. in Dade City. She was divorced and had two sons, Chris and Steve, in their early 20s. Originally from Fort Lauderdale, she came to the Hoys Village last September. She was a registered nurse and had degrees in education and social work, and she had a long record of work with young people.

This report was compiled using Times archives.

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