Cleanup efforts are underway in the Tampa area after multiple destructive tornadoes tore through the area on Wednesday.
A cold front, which was attached to the storm that brought over 3 feet of snow to some places in the Northeast, moved through Florida on Wednesday afternoon.
Severe weather started to roll through the Tampa area just after 1 p.m., quickly triggering special marine warnings across the region for waterspouts.
As the storm approached the coast, warnings for waterspouts continued, and by 3:50 p.m., the first tornado warning was issued.
Spectrum Bay News 9 reported an apparent tornado touched down at 3:53 p.m. and rampaged through Pinellas Park and Largo, eventually moving east-northeast to mid-Pinellas and into the bay. According to the local TV station WFTS, the NWS said, a "confirmed large and extremely dangerous tornado," was moving through the area.
The Pinellas Park Police Department said 25 structures were damaged on Endeavour Way, but no injuries were reported.
Bryan Sills, who works in one of the buildings that managed to escape damage from the storm, recounted the harrowing moments the twister stuck. "The lights flickered, and within 30 seconds or so, we had a tornado on top of us, and debris was hitting the building, and we instantaneously just took cover," Sills told WTSP. "It was all over in less than a minute," he continued, adding that "the tornado hit every building but ours, and it was total destruction all around."
Storm surveys were completed on Thursday by the weather service in Tampa. The NWS confirmed that an EF2 twister packing winds up to 125 mph tore through Pinellas County and an EF1 tornado with winds of 110 mph ripped through Hillsborough and Polk counties.
The path of the EF2 tornado in Pinellas County stretched 13 miles long and 300 yards wide. The EF1 tornado spanned 12 miles length-wise and 250 yards wide.
This storm was part of a cold front that came in from the northwest, which usually causes south to southwest winds ahead of the front, according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dave Houk.
"The shape of the coast of Pinellas County and over through Tampa Bay can at times aid in the spin-up of the tornadoes, which looks like it did in this case," said Houk.
Why are we issuing Special Marine Warnings? The feature that is circled suggests this storm may be producing a waterspout. Storms well offshore have been capable of this. Waterspouts are hazardous to mariners. Thankfully, storms are weakening as the near the coast #flwx pic.twitter.com/q0MU82cd3U
— NWS Tampa Bay (@NWSTampaBay) December 16, 2020
Strong rotation inside the storm was detected as it went over the Howard Frankland Bridge. The bridge and those on it escaped without serious injury and damage. The only reported damage along the 3-mile bridge, according to The Florida Highway Patrol, was to a message sign that fell over.
The National Weather Service (NWS) in Tampa Bay received multiple reports of a tornado throughout the evening from the public, amateur radio, 911 call centers and other federal reports.
— Spectrum Bay News 9 (@BN9) December 16, 2020
The tornado started to approach Tampa International Airport but weakened as it got closer, The Tampa Bay Times reported. Shortly after, the tornado reformed in Polk County near U.S. 98, causing damage to neighborhoods.
Houk, who resides in nearby Seminole, Florida, explained that although it was one cell that produced the tornado, the storm cell had a longer track than usual. The cell moved from Pinellas County across the bay and into Hillsborough County before it dissipated in Polk County.
Trees were ripped out of the ground, and roofs were torn off homes near Lake Gibson in what the NWS called "significant damage." Some buildings were uplifted, roof decking was removed and out walls collapsed.
A boat storage facility sustained massive damage, and boats weighing up to two tons were thrown around in the storm.
"We don't know how powerful it was exactly, but it was definitely a powerful tornado by Florida's standards," said Spectrum Bay News 9 Meteorologist Brian McClure.
This morning crews are at work clearing debris and assessing damage from the storm. pic.twitter.com/BFGOwrgVSm
— PinellasParkPD (@PinellasParkPD) December 17, 2020
Remarkably, no deaths or injuries were reported in Pinellas County in the wake of the destructive storm.
Multiple homes are considered uninhabitable by the sheriff's office as a result of the tornado, the Times reported. About 12,000 residents in the county were without power Wednesday night. Crews worked through the night and into the morning to help restore power and assess the damage, according to the Times.
"Although not a completely rare event this time of year, this one packed a little more of a punch and was longer-lasting than the typical small-scale tornadoes that affect the area," said Houk.
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