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Businesses pick up the pieces after powerful tornado tore up Pinellas

It was the most powerful tornado to hit Pinellas County in 28 years. But while several businesses were damaged, no one was injured or killed.

PINELLAS PARK — Bo Short popped his head outside for a few seconds when a transformer blew.

The 55-year-old warehouse manager at Solar Source turned his head toward the strip of gravel near their building on Endeavour Way. Down the driveway he saw the funnel of a tornado, filled with debris.

“In the little bit of time I looked at it I could tell it was coming right at me,” Short said.

What Short and thousands of Pinellas residents faced Wednesday was the most powerful tornado to strike the area in nearly three decades.

The twister was officially classified as an F2 on the Fujita scale by the National Weather Service. Also known as the Fujita–Pearson scale, that’s how meteorologists rate the intensity of tornadoes according to how much damage they inflict.

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

Wednesday’s tornado generated peak winds of up to 125 mph. That means it’s the most powerful tornado to strike the county since the deadly 1992 tornadoes that touched down in Pinellas Park, killing four, injuring 130 and damaging or destroying hundreds of houses and mobile homes.

The most powerful tornado 28 years ago was an F3 — rated under a different Fujita scale — which had maximum winds of up to 206 mph, was 200 yards wide and traveled a length of three miles.

By comparison, Wednesday’s storm traveled for about 13 miles and was 300 yards wide. This time, however, there were no fatalities or even injuries reported after the tornado damaged businesses, tore up roofs, knocked down trees and left up to 14,000 customers without power.

Short said he ran inside and hit the ground while a dozen or so coworkers huddled together in the kitchen. When the sound of a freight train faded away, he noticed “a new skylight” and rain pouring inside the warehouse. Part of the roof was gone.

He was back at work on Thursday, brushing debris away from the warehouse. Inside the facility, which has offices and a classroom to help other contractors obtain solar accreditation, the roof caved in or laid in pieces on the floor, with insulation in tufts.

The equipment in the warehouse seemed to be spared, but some of the solar panels on the roof were ripped up — they landed on and around cars at the body shop across the street by Endeavor Way.

Solar Source executive vice president Rick Gilbert said their solar panels are made to withstand, and have withstood, strong hurricane force winds.

“A direct hit with a tornado is a whole different act of nature,” he said.

As Gilbert and his team stood around Thursday surveying the damage with power still out in their facility, he said figuring out how to get back to business would be tricky. It was a dilemma faced by the other companies in the Endeavor Way business park that were battered by the twister.

Across the road at Hot Wheels Auto Repair, a number of cars were damaged by fallen trees or debris. About 15 of the 25 cars on site were damaged, said store manager David Orwig. He said in February a tornado passed through the area, but it must not have touched down because the damage was nowhere near what it was Wednesday.

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

Crews worked through the night and into Thursday to restore power and repair tornado damage, most of it in Pinellas Park and Largo, according to Duke Energy. But the power loss extended across three counties. After battering mid-Pinellas, the tornado entered the waters of Tampa Bay and passed by the Howard Frankland Bridge, but lost power by the time it reached the Tampa side of the bay.

However, the same storm passed over the Hillsborough-Polk county line about 50 miles away, which is where it reformed as an F1-rated tornado and caused more damage.

Spectrum Bay News 9 chief meteorologist Mike Clay said the region is fortunate no one was killed or seriously injured by the tornado, especially as it passed by the bridge.

“We’re very lucky that it didn’t hit any cars on the Howard Frankland Bridge,” he said. “There were probably 80 cars on the bridge when it came by and just missed it.”

Times staff writer Dennis Joyce contributed to this report.