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Tornado rocks Pinellas Park mobile home park

Thursday night’s storms made for an especially harrowing night at Palm Grove Village mobile home park off 66th Street N.
David Smith, a resident of the Palm Grove Village Mobile Home Park, Pinellas Park, shows the damage to his home, Friday, February 7, 2020, after high winds, Thursday night, toppled an Australian Pine tree onto the structure.  "I was in the bathroom when it hit," said Smith.  [SCOTT KEELER  |  TAMPA BAY TIMES]
David Smith, a resident of the Palm Grove Village Mobile Home Park, Pinellas Park, shows the damage to his home, Friday, February 7, 2020, after high winds, Thursday night, toppled an Australian Pine tree onto the structure. "I was in the bathroom when it hit," said Smith. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]
Published Feb. 7
Updated Feb. 7

PINELLAS PARK — One man stood in his front doorway in his underwear, watching the wind whip his porch furniture as if someone was shaking a dollhouse.

Nearby, one of his neighbors rushed to his bathroom, minutes before a tree crashed through the roof over his living room.

And a few houses away, a woman sprawled on the ground in her lanai, glued to Facebook as she tried to get a message to a local TV news weather personality: The tornado is right here, blowing through Palm Grove Village mobile home park.

“They say don’t be in your mobile home,” said the woman, Pam Barnak, 57. “But where are you supposed to go?”

Related: Storm aftermath: Tornado reported in Pinellas Park; crane fell onto I-275 in St. Pete

Thursday night’s storms made for an especially harrowing night in the mobile home park. By Friday morning, neighbors were out and about, checking on each other and sharing stories. The storm’s power was clear in the twisted awnings, mangled roofs and cracked tree trunks scattered around the neighborhood at 9204 66th St. N.

The National Weather Service confirmed Friday afternoon that a tornado “briefly touched down" about 4 miles south of Largo, “causing a narrow path of damage moving east-northeast across the county” over about 9 miles. The 50-yard wide tornado, which the weather service classified as weak with peak wind speeds hitting 85 mph, mostly stayed at the tree-top level. One injury was reported due to a tree falling on a home, according to the weather service, although it doesn’t specify where.

In other words: “Tornado went over your park,” Kathy Kimmerley, 58, texted her friend, Ken DeMarco at 10:58 p.m.

“NO S--T,” DeMarco, 55, texted her back.

At the center of the damage was 67-year-old David Smith, the resident who rode out the storm in his bathroom. He was watching Bay News 9 on Thursday night, he said, when he saw a weather radar showing a hook in the storm system start to rotate over his neighborhood.

He got off his couch and headed to the bathroom. He figured he’d be safest tucked behind the door and grabbed a piece of plywood to shield him.

“I wasn’t even there five to 10 minutes, and then boom,” he said.

He didn’t hear the freight train noise, he said, noting that his hearing isn’t great, but he did notice a whistling sound and could feel the wind moving his home.

He waited about 15 minutes for the wind to die down, then walked back into his living room to a shock. An Australian pine had toppled into his home, pushing the roof in jagged chunks onto the couch, TV and a medical bed where he slept each night beneath a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fleece blanket.

He had just moved into the mobile home four to five months ago, paying about $7,500 for the structure and renting the land it sat on. He liked the spot because it was quiet, tucked in the back of the park along a fence lined with the towering pine trees. But one of them had betrayed him.

“That was the culprit right there,” he said, pointing to a tree trunk that had been partially ripped from the ground.

A large Australian Pine tree toppled onto the home of David Smith, a resident of the Palm Grove Village Mobile Home Park, Pinellas Park. Strong storms blew through the area Thursday night. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

He hadn’t gotten around to insuring his home yet, he said, and he’s not sure how much it’ll cost to fix everything. He also doesn’t yet know where he’ll stay in the meantime. Still, Smith said he and the neighborhood were pretty lucky, all things considered.

“It could have been worse,” he said.

Down the street, Kimmerley had come from her house about two miles away to check on DeMarco, the man who watched the wind move his porch furniture.

“I’ve been a nervous wreck since 10:30 last night,” Kimmerley said.

DeMarco had just moved to his mobile home three weeks ago from Philadelphia, where he’d never experienced a tornado. Thursday night, he ran back toward his bedroom, where he prayed the house he’d just finished furnishing would be okay. Outside, he could hear the irregular drum beat of debris flying against an aluminum shed he’d just cleaned out as a hang-out space for his 11-year-old daughter — a “she-shed,” he called it.

His home emerged almost unscathed, with only a few twisted window awnings. He was thankful, he said.

“I’m not looking at the stars like some of these people,” he said.

Ken DeMarco, 55, stands in the doorway of his home Friday, the morning after neighbors said a tornado blew through the Palm Grove Village mobile home park. From the spot in his doorway, DeMarco said he watched the wind whip his porch furniture. [KATHRYN VARN | Times]

Gary Shepherd and Mike Andrews, who live across the street from each other, said they were amazed it wasn’t worse. They both saw the sky turn an eerie dark green, “like something you’d see in The Wizard of Oz,” Andrews said.

Andrews, 30, had just returned from walking his 4-year-old mastiff mix, Loki, when Shepherd, 46, ran over to warn him about the storm. As Shepherd hadn’t even made it back inside his house when the tornado blew by, he said.

Both men noted that they were frustrated at the pine trees, which over the years had damaged power lines at best and caused damage like at Smith’s house at worst.

After the tornado, Shepherd ran in the rain to an RV, where a downed power line had snaked over the roof. He banged on the door. Joe Evans, 56, answered the door. Shepherd warned him not to touch anything.

“He’s my hero, man!” Evans said.

Debris from fallen Australian pine trees piled Friday morning outside Joe Evans' RV in the back of Palm Grove Village mobile home park. Neighbors reported seeing a tornado blow through the park Thursday night amid a powerful storm system that blew through the Tampa Bay area. [KATHRYN VARN | Times]

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