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Dunedin women survive close call with tornado that destroyed their mobile homes

One resident of Honeymoon Park along the Pinellas Trail said she watched her roof rip open.
 
Sondra Martin, 73, sits in her easy chair in what remains of her living room on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023, at Honeymoon Park mobile home park in Dunedin. Suspected tornadoes sliced through the area early Thursday morning.
Sondra Martin, 73, sits in her easy chair in what remains of her living room on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023, at Honeymoon Park mobile home park in Dunedin. Suspected tornadoes sliced through the area early Thursday morning. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 12, 2023|Updated Oct. 13, 2023

DUNEDIN — Sondra Martin woke in a daze when her phone buzzed at 1:40 a.m. Thursday, getting up to retrieve her glasses from the bathroom so she could see the screen.

When she sat back on the bed to read the tornado alert, the ceiling of her manufactured home cracked, dropping dust and debris on her short, silver hair.

“I could hear metal twisting and the wind,” Martin, 73, said. “All I thought to do was run.”

She jumped up and headed for the aluminum door, but it wouldn’t open. The roof began peeling back. She looked up to see the sky and “the ugliest clouds.”

“Help!,” she wailed into the phone after calling 911. “It took my house!”

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Next door, Martin’s 83-year-old neighbor was already hiding in her bathtub when she heard the screaming. She’d been up late watching the news when she got the alert.

“And then I heard it hit my house,” Sharon Murphy said. “I heard glass bust and everything turned upside down.”

After the storm, the neighbors, who both live alone in the Honeymoon Park trailer park along the Pinellas Trail, waited on lawn chairs until sunrise.

They escaped uninjured, but their homes were among three out of the community’s 230 that were severely damaged — likely destroyed — when tornadoes ripped through the region overnight, damaging homes and businesses in Dunedin and Clearwater Beach and to the north near Crystal River.

Preliminary data suggested two tornadoes touched down in the early morning hours Thursday, one in north Pinellas County and another in Citrus County, both classified as EF2, with wind speeds of 111 to 135 mph.

In Clearwater Beach, much of the damage was to homes and businesses on a small, affluent stretch of El Dorado Avenue. The tornado tore away a large section of roof from a two-story home there as a woman slept inside, police said, but there were no reported injuries in Pinellas County.

Related: See photos of tornado damage in Pinellas County

A large section of the roof and an exterior wall were also ripped away from a three-story building at the Harbor Pointe condominiums complex just east of the Dunedin Causeway.

A half-mile inland, at the Causeway Plaza in Dunedin, an Isuzu box truck belonging to Bingo Time bingo parlor was toppled onto its side, hitting two parked Mercedes sedans.

Nearby, in a million-to-one shot, a portable toilet was impaled atop a light post in the parking lot.

The entire Tampa Bay region north of Manatee County spent most of Thursday under a tornado watch as a line of strong storms moved northeast through the area from the Gulf of Mexico, colliding with a warm front.

While thunderstorms will continue Friday, forecasters said the worst storm and flood risk should be over.

While the rain swamped streets in some of Tampa Bay’s most flood-prone areas on Thursday, such as St. Petersburg’s Shore Acres and Dodecanese Boulevard in Tarpon Springs, the water stopped short of coming indoors.

The southwest wind pushing the storms across the region was slowing Thursday night, forecasters said, lessening the flood risks across Tampa Bay. A cold front pushing through the area Saturday will bring cooler temperatures into early next week.

Survey teams with the weather service’s Tampa Bay office searched for signs of damage Thursday that could raise the number of tornadoes thought to have scraped the area, said Stephen Shiveley, a forecaster with the agency, but heavy storms had slowed their work.

A separate tornado warning issued around noon on Thursday for a possible third tornado was for a funnel cloud spotted near Clearwater Beach that moved toward Odessa but never touched the ground.

Robert Wright was asleep at his Island Estates home when he got a call around 4 a.m. telling him there was damage to his business, Bingo Time.

Hours later he looked at shattered glass and yellow caution tape wrapped around the pillars outside the business, which he has owned for 29 years. At least seven windows and two doors were blown out. Collapsed ceiling panels sat on the floor inside.

“No big deal,” Wright said.

Wright has insurance on the business, he said, but not on the box truck that hit two cars.

At Honeymoon Park, where neighbors Martin and Murphy sustained catastrophic damage to their homes, firefighters and crews from the American Red Cross and a local Home Depot store assessed the damage and offered assistance.

Martin and Murphy, who both originally came to the area as snowbirds from the Midwest before making Florida their permanent home, said they may take up the Red Cross on an offer of temporary shelter. Neither of them has insurance on their homes.

“This was my retirement,” Martin said.

They’d both had brushes with tornadoes up north and lived through Florida’s hurricanes, they said, but had never experienced such damage.

“We got together, and we’re OK,” Murphy said. “That’s the main thing. Yeah, our houses might be gone, but we’re still here.”

Across the street, Murphy’s sister-in-law’s home sat untouched.

That sister-in-law, Wilma Murphy, had made a pot of coffee for the women but couldn’t get them to eat.

“You watch other neighborhoods get hit and the outpouring of kindness and help and everything,” Wilma Murphy said. “And then all of a sudden, it affects you.”

National Weather Service Tampa Bay meteorologist-in-charge Brian LaMarre said warnings usually go out 7 to 10 minutes before a tornado comes through.

“Mobile homes are tough,” he said. “A lot of people get killed or hurt.”

Times reporter Max Chesnes contributed to this report.