Deadly tornado kills two in the night in Manatee County

Friends and neighbors dig through the rubble of a mobile home to try and salvage personal items for a family in Duette.   [Mike Lang | Sarasota Herald-Tribune]
Friends and neighbors dig through the rubble of a mobile home to try and salvage personal items for a family in Duette. [Mike Lang | Sarasota Herald-Tribune]
Published Jan. 18, 2016

Only an hour after the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for the small community of Duette in rural Manatee County, a tornado with 127 mph winds ravaged the area Sunday morning, ripping one mobile home from its concrete foundation and churning it into rubble.

The homeowners, a neighborly couple who'd spent the evening with their four young grandchildren, were killed.

Steven B. Wilson, who turned 58 on Thursday, was killed amid the destruction. His wife, Kelli, 51, died while being taken to a hospital.

The couple's son, 38-year-old Steven M. Wilson, "crawled out of the debris" and "shepherded" his four children, ages 6 to 10, safely into a barn, Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

The Wilsons' son and his children were taken to a local hospital and treated for injuries that didn't appear to be life-threatening.

"I'm amazed to see that anyone got out of this alive," Steube said.

The tornado that ravaged Duette, where other mobile homes were damaged, was part of a fast-moving cell of severe thunderstorms that peppered the Tampa Bay area with heavy rain and high winds early Sunday morning. Pinellas and Hillsborough counties escaped mostly unscathed, but Manatee and Sarasota counties awoke to widespread devastation.

An hour before the Duette tornado touched down in eastern Manatee County, another twister caused damage in the Sarasota area, including Siesta Key. A building collapsed and several homes were torn apart by high winds and fallen tree limbs.

Gov. Rick Scott toured damage Sunday afternoon at a condominium complex on Siesta Key.

The strength rating for the Duette tornado was estimated to be an EF2, according to the National Weather Service.

The destructive storm cell passed over the northern Tampa Bay area first before reaching Sarasota and Manatee counties, but left behind only rain, said National Weather Service meteorologist Tyler Fleming. Strong winds and heavy rain closed the Sunshine Skyway bridge twice Sunday, at 3:35 a.m. and again at 9 a.m. Gusts overnight reached 70 mph, and later Sunday morning they peaked at 60 mph. The skyway reopened at 12:30 p.m.

"This was a very quick-moving system," Fleming said. "Once it got farther south, the ingredients lined up to produce this severe weather."

In Tampa Bay, 1 to 2 inches of rain fell in parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Power outages sprung up across Pinellas. More than 3,000 Duke Energy customers were affected throughout the county, according to an outage map. In Hillsborough County, 3,000 Tampa Electric customers were without power Sunday.

Power was restored to most customers in both counties by Sunday evening, though thousands remained without in the counties farther south.

In St. Petersburg, nearly a foot of murky water flooded Snell Isle Boulevard NE more than 12 hours after the storm. Passing cars splashed huge waves onto sodden front lawns.

Mike Lynch, 26, said he didn't realize flooding would be so routine when he began renting in Snell Isle several years ago.

"I figured that was an issue, but I didn't really anticipate having to drive through a foot of water on a regular basis," he said.

Shore Acres, another neighborhood often slammed with floodwaters, saw similar effects.

"For the most part, it's part of life here," said David Delrahim, president of the Shore Acres Civic Association. The water, he said, simply has nowhere to go.

The overnight thunderstorms were stirred up when a low-pressure system moving across the Gulf of Mexico and a cold front on the edge of the system moved together, Fleming said.

The weekend's severe storms and tornadoes come less than a week after several tornadoes touched down in Lee County. It's unusual for Florida tornadoes to cause such extensive damage, Fleming said, but during El Niño winters like this one, severe thunderstorms are more common.

"We can't say El Niño caused (the tornadoes) per se, but it put ingredients together to make it more likely," he said.

And more could come over the next two months.

"We'll see a more active weather pattern into February and early March," said 10Weather WTSP meteorologist Ashley Batey.

As for the rest of this week, Batey said the bay area should expect a cold snap. Overnight lows were expected to be in the 40s. Because of strong winds, high tides may surge as much as 2 feet higher than normal today.

Today's highs will hover around 60 degrees, with overnight lows into the high 30s inland and closer to the mid 40s near the coast. The coldest weather will come Wednesday morning, when lows dip to 35 degrees in Hillsborough County, Batey said.

Cold shelters will open today and Tuesday in Clearwater, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg. The county provides a hot dinner, a place to sleep and breakfast. Pasco County's website lists cold weather shelters in Dade City and Port Richey as well.

Fleming advised pet owners to bring outdoor animals inside. Plants should be brought indoors or covered.

By Thursday, highs will climb back into the upper 60s and lower 70s, but are expected to tumble again by the weekend.

"It will cool things down a little bit but won't be as sharp as this one," Batey said.

The next round of thunderstorms is expected to hit Tampa Bay by Friday, she said, but will be more docile.

"The severe weather threat is over," Batey said. "That's the most important thing."

Times staff writer Claire McNeill and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune contributed this report. Contact Katie Mettler at or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler.