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Tornado damages Pinellas, spares Howard Frankland Bridge, then hits Polk

The tornado damaged mid-Pinellas County and started moving across Tampa Bay and over the bridge. Then it weakened — but reformed over Polk County.
Tornado damage is evident on Cross Bayou Drive at Canal Street at an industrial park off Endeavor Way which was damaged by a tornado on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in Pinellas Park. The storm struck mid-Pinellas County on Wednesday afternoon knocking out power to thousands, authorities say. The same storm threatened east Hillsborough County and Polk County. However, the National Weather Service lifted tornado warnings for those areas at 5:30 p.m. but warned residents to remain cautious about stormy weather.
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Tornado damage is evident on Cross Bayou Drive at Canal Street at an industrial park off Endeavor Way which was damaged by a tornado on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in Pinellas Park. The storm struck mid-Pinellas County on Wednesday afternoon knocking out power to thousands, authorities say. The same storm threatened east Hillsborough County and Polk County. However, the National Weather Service lifted tornado warnings for those areas at 5:30 p.m. but warned residents to remain cautious about stormy weather. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 16, 2020
Updated Dec. 17, 2020

PINELLAS PARK — Christian Rossi called his wife from work on Wednesday to tell her about the tornado warning when he looked out the window and saw his own warning.

Half a tree flew by. The tornado had arrived.

“When I saw the tree in the air, me and my coworkers just scrambled,” the 31-year-old said. “We ran to a room with no windows and could hear a whistling like a train was going by.”

They were among the thousands of Tampa Bay residents on Wednesday who suddenly found themselves in the path of a “large, extremely dangerous tornado,” according to the National Weather Service.

The twister spent two hours cutting its way across mid-Pinellas County, churning through the waters of Tampa Bay and then reforming over Polk County about 50 miles away.

However, while the bay area suffered widespread property damage and power outages, there were no reports of fatalities or serious injuries in Pinellas County as of 8:30 p.m.

Related: Tornado guide for Floridians: What to do when you see a watch or warning

It will take scientists time to figure out how powerful the tornado was according to the Fujita scale, which is used to rate the intensity of a tornado according to how much damage it inflicts.

“We don’t know how powerful it was exactly, but it was definitely a powerful tornado by Florida’s standards,” said Spectrum Bay News 9 Meteorologist Brian McClure.

Related: THURSDAY UPDATE: The tornado that hit Pinellas was the most powerful in 28 years

Rossi said it was a fast but jarring experience that lasted about 45 seconds. Still, that was enough time for the twister to inflict serious damage on the Endeavor Way industrial park where he works. Roofs were ripped off and there was “debris everywhere.”

The tornado hit about 3:53 p.m., according to Spectrum Bay News 9. After damaging Pinellas Park and Largo, the tornado moved east-northeast across mid-Pinellas and entered the bay.

The National Weather Service said it detected a “strong rotation” as it passed over the 3-mile Howard Frankland Bridge.

While there were reports of a water spout over the bridge, it was officially a “tornado in the water,” said Weather Service meteorologist Brian LaMarre.

The bridge and the motorists using it appear to have escaped serious injury and damage. The Florida Highway Patrol reported that the only damage was a message sign that was knocked down.

The National Weather Service’s Ruskin bureau was monitoring the storm and coordinating with the Federal Aviation Administration as the tornado approached Tampa International Airport, LaMarre said. But then the tornado started to weaken.

Then it reformed as it approached the Hillsborough-Polk county line, according to the Weather Service. It touched down in Polk County, apparently near U.S. 98 and W Daughtery Road, and inflicted more damage there. Deputies shut down access to a damaged neighborhood on Gibson Shores Drive.

The tornado touched down just north of Lakeland’s city limits on E Daughtery Road just before 5:30 p.m., said Polk Sheriff Grady Judd at a news conference that night.

The tornado was short-lived, he said, but inflicted “significant damage” to homes near Lake Gibson, ripping oak trees out of the ground and roofs off of homes.

There were no reported injuries, the sheriff said. But two homes lost their roofs and were so damaged that he called them “uninhabitable.”

Judd said Wednesday’s tornado didn’t appear to be as powerful as the F-2 tornado that touched down in Polk County in October 2019 and damaged 50 homes over a 9-mile trail. Like Wednesday’s twister, that one also damaged Pinellas before re-appearing in Polk.

“The damage was much worse then and was spread over a larger area then,” he said. “This was a skip — it hit in this very tightly confined couple of streets and then lifted up and was gone.”

Related: Tornado overturns semi-trailer in Polk; winds cause blackouts in Pinellas

The Red Cross was called in to help families impacted by the twister. Judd said deputies will guard the damaged neighborhoods overnight while their owners are away.

”It’s a wonderful day whenever no one is injured,” Judd said at a news conference. “We can repair houses, we can grow new trees, but we can’t bring a life back that’s lost from a horrible event.”

In Pinellas, the damage appeared to be concentrated in the areas around Bryan Dairy Road and 66th Street N and around 49th Street N and 118th Avenue N, city officials said.

Emergency units rushed into those areas. About 12,000 Pinellas residents were still without power as of 7 p.m. Traffic signals were knocked out. There were also reports of damage in the Bayou Club area of Largo near S Belcher Road.

Up to 25 buildings were damaged off Endeavour Way, said Pinellas Park Deputy Fire Chief Rob Angell. Some of the damage was severe, he said, and will be shut down for some time.

“It took out an entire commercial district here,” he said.

Across Pinellas Park, residents described the same phenomenon: The tornado suddenly appeared and, after a few intense moments, disappeared.

The first time a tornado tore through Alyssa Nichols’ neighborhood was 1992. She was just 3 months old when her family’s home was destroyed.

The last time was on Wednesday on the very same property. The first sign of trouble was falling tree branches. Her father yelled for her to take cover as the tornado approached their Autumn Run neighborhood. The 28-year-old jumped into a bathtub.

Nichols recalled the tornadoes of 1992, which killed four and injured more than 120 people. It took her family a year to rebuild. But this time, save for the branches and roof tiles blown into their yard, they escaped serious damage. And no one in her neighborhood was injured.

“That’s what’s important,” Nichols said.

Nick Carper said the first sign of trouble was that his power had gone out and there were heavy rains in his neighborhood near 66th Street N and Bryan Dairy Road.

Then the 32-year-old noticed the wind was moving in two different directions and the rain began to pick up. He sought shelter in his hallway.

“I heard kind of a rumbling,” he said. It sounded like a car passed through his house.

But after 20 seconds or so, it was over. When he went outside, his fence was damaged and there was a trampoline on his roof. But none of his neighbors had been injured.

“It was very intense,” he said.