Forecasters said severe weather would wallop the Tampa Bay area on Thursday, and by mid afternoon a strong system of storms lived up to that prediction — delivering tornadoes, rip currents, hail, flooding and winds strong enough to damage 73 mobile homes in Zephyrhills.
The severe thunderstorms blew from the west into Central Florida around noon, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a tornado watch from noon to 4 p.m. for Hillsborough, Polk, Pinellas, Sarasota, Manatee, Hardee, DeSoto and Highlands counties. The foulest conditions moved out nearly as quickly as they hit the region, but local forecasters predicted a cold front from the west Thursday night would keep rain coming for the next 36 hours.
"It's definitely not a good day to be outside if you don't have to be," meteorologist Rodney Wynn said.
The upper level energy comes courtesy of the El Niño winter, marked by a strong southern jet stream pushing upper level energy over Mexico and Central America and fueling storms pushed in by cold fronts.
Forecasters expect more flooding, particularly along local rivers and coastal regions of Pinellas County. Scattered, lingering rain showers were expected to continue through Thursday night into Friday afternoon, but Wynn said the skies should clear by Saturday.
"These conditions mean we're in for good weather this weekend throughout the holidays, so the good news is we'll get a lot of the mess out of here before Christmas," Wynne said.
Forecasters say the Tampa Bay area will wake up to clear, sunny skies on Saturday, with lows in the mid 50's and high temperatures in the mid-60's, creeping up to 71 degrees by Monday afternoon.
By about 3 p.m. on Thursday, the Weather Service confirmed that three tornadoes touched down in the region — one in Lake Wales, one in Polk County and one in Myakka City. Another tornado was reported near Babson Park in Polk County at 9:15 a.m.
Reports of flooded roadways and rising rivers poured in to the agency's Tampa office throughout the day, Wynn said. The storm dumped about 5 inches of rain on the area in just 24 hours, and prompted a flood watch through Friday afternoon covering the entire region.
Wynn said there is also a significant threat of rip currents and strong wind gusts, which could reach 50 mph in some areas.
In Zephyrhills, straight-line winds reached 60 mph at Forest Lake Estates, meteorologists said Thursday morning, causing widespread damage but no injuries.
Eight fire rescue crews responded to the damage at its peak, but that number dwindled as noon approached and most properties were cleared. By early evening, it appeared most of the damage was minor. Five homes were deemed unsafe to inhabit, 20 had moderate to major damage and 88 had minor to moderate damage, according to a news release from Pasco County officials.
Most residents were away from the subdivision when the storm hit, though a few rode it out in their homes. Families displaced chose to stay with family and friends.
The storm roared northeast across Jessup Lane, where one house is now marked uninhabitable and where, a few houses down, Adie O'Kane was watching television when she saw debris flying past her window.
The northern Ontario native said she rushed to wake her partner, Dan Marynak, who jumped from bed when the pair heard a loud "Ka-boom" — the sound of a branch clipping the back corner of the house.
"I was petrified," O'Kane said. "This is the first time I've been through something like this ... I kept thinking, if a limb falls off and hits the house, what are we going to do? We've got no place to hide."
Here are highlights of the storm's effects elsewhere in the region:
• Flooding forced the closing of three parks in Pasco County — Robert K. Rees Memorial Park, Moon Lake Park and Key Vista Nature Park.
• Coastal flood warnings remain in effect from Levy to Manatee counties and high surf advisories are in effect from Pinellas County south. There will also be a high risk of strong rip currents.
• There were reports of storm-driven hail at Pinellas County's Fort DeSoto Park.
• Street flooding was reported in some areas of St. Petersburg. Beach Drive from the Vinoy hotel north was reportedly flooding, making it difficult for vehicles to pass, as were areas in south St. Petersburg along 45th Avenue S and 54th Ave S.
• Winds of 59 mph were reported at Fort De Soto and 45 mph winds reported near downtown St. Petersburg.
• The rain created significant threats of flooding and beach erosion along the coast. Forecasters said waterspouts were recorded in the Gulf of Mexico.
Staff writer Daniel Figueroa IV contributed to this story. Contact Anastasia Dawson at email@example.com. Follow @adawsonwrites.