Twister plows through beach city
By MIKE BRASSFIELD
ST. PETE BEACH -- The summer storm season introduced itself to Pinellas County on Saturday afternoon when a tornado skipped across a St. Pete Beach neighborhood, damaging as many as 40 homes.
About 10 houses had extensive damage, rendering them temporarily uninhabitable, city officials said.
No serious injuries were reported, even though several people had close calls with the tornado. Residents clearly saw the funnel cloud as it roared down streets and canals.
"It came right down the waterway. Half of it was in my yard, half in the water," Dave Evans said from his waterfront home on Miller Drive. "The tunnel was 200 feet high, full of debris that was creating its shape, if you will. You could see big pieces of roofs, screens, tree branches and shingles, all moving in a tight circle about 40 yards wide. You could hear stuff hitting the house -- Boom! Boom! Boom!"
The twister was spawned by a large storm system that dropped heavy rain and flooded streets in areas across southern Pinellas County and parts of Hillsborough County.
About 3:45 p.m., as a hard rain fell, St. Pete Beach residents saw a funnel cloud drop out of menacing black clouds.
The tornado touched down on a corner of Boca Ciega Isle, ripping up parts of two roofs. It moved south across part of Boca Ciega Bay and then tore through the Belle Vista neighborhood, just north of the Pinellas Bayway and the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa.
St. Pete Beach firefighters and city engineers who were assessing the damage could draw a straight line showing the tornado's path. Houses on the west side of Miller Drive were damaged. Houses on the east side were not.
The tornado pulled off roofs, smashed in windows, shredded lanais and uprooted trees. Twenty-five to 40 homes had some damage, 15 to 20 need extensive repairs, and 10 to 12 are uninhabitable, said Assistant Fire Chief Tom Malone.
In the Belle Vista neighborhood, the tornado skipped over several streets, then touched down again and demolished lawyer Ric Feinberg's garage on Belle Vista Drive. "I drove home and reached for my garage door opener. No door. No garage," Feinberg said from his back yard, which is within view of the Don CeSar.
Several parents in the neighborhood were home with their children. For them, the tornado produced moments of stark terror.
In his house on 41st Avenue, Bill Zavasky pushed his three young daughters under a bed as his windows shattered and debris whirled in circles on his street.
On Miller Drive, Carleen Galiardo was watching television with her 6-year-old son, Robert, when lawn chairs started tumbling through their yard.
"A window at the front of the house blew in, so I grabbed him and ran into the shower and stayed there," Galiardo said.
After the storm, neighbors stood amid shredded tree limbs and talked to insurance agents on their cell phones.
City engineers made their way through the neighborhood, deciding which homes were structurally sound, which homes were safe to live in, and which homes were safe to have electricity as soon as Florida Power crews repaired power lines. About 100 homes were without power.
The Sharps returned from a funeral Saturday afternoon to find half their roof rolled up like a giant paper tube in a yard across the street. Still, the couple maintained their composure and their sense of humor. "Wipe your feet before you come in," Frank Sharp said, standing in a living room full of water and glass shards.
Saturday's storm caused trouble elsewhere. In Treasure Island, a motel roof was damaged and two blocks of Gulf Boulevard were briefly closed due to flooding.
But St. Pete Beach got the brunt of it.
At the end of Miller Drive, retired engineer Al Ayres waited glumly for his wife to come home.
The tornado pulled the lanai off Ayres' swimming pool and dropped it on top of his house.
The house next door was virtually untouched. "Why me?" Ayres said with a shrug and a smile.
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