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    Rain, twisters lash Florida

    Most damage is north of the Tampa Bay area, which soaks up much- needed precipitation.

    [Times photo: Jamie Francis]
    Erin Moriarty, visiting St. Pete Beach from Chicago, huddles against the cold rain as she walks along Gulf Boulevard on Thursday.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2001


    Tornadoes damaged dozens of homes and destroyed a church Thursday as a massive storm system ripped through Central Florida, bringing lightning, high winds and torrential rains.

    The storms dropped up to 3 inches of rain in some places and will bring more showers today, and possibly through the weekend.

    The rain won't end the state's two-year drought, but it will ease the extreme dryness throughout Florida, reducing the chance of wildfire. In fact, March will be the first month since last summer that the Tampa Bay area has had above-average rainfall.

    Despite widespread damage, few injuries were reported as the storms raced across North and Central Florida at 40 mph.

    Pinellas and Hillsborough counties were relatively unscathed, other than a few power failures. The roof of a hardware store collapsed in Sun City Center.

    Farther north, however, tornadoes touched down, with one cutting a path 100 yards wide by 8 miles long and damaging 50 homes in northwest Citrus County. Dozens of trees snapped, blocking roads and severing power lines.

    In Pasco County, a twister destroyed a vacant church southwest of Dade City. High winds ripped a metal awning off a store's gas pumps along State Road 52.

    "It sounded like a freight train," said Wayne "Pop" Lawrence, co-owner of the Neon Cowboy convenience store. "It was the strangest wind I ever saw."

    The storms inflicted more damage farther north and east.

    A tornado south of Ocala destroyed six homes and smashed in windows and roofs of two dozen more. A restaurant in Eustis had its roof peeled back.

    At Walt Disney World, wind blew over a large tent, sending six employees to the hospital.

    And five homes were leveled and 15 more damaged 30 miles south of Jacksonville.

    Today could bring more volatile weather.

    Forecasters predict an 80 percent chance of rain, with thunderstorms more likely earlier in the day.

    "We're looking for showers to continue off and on throughout the day," said National Weather Service meteorologist Richard Rude. The forecast calls for up to 2 more inches of rain over the weekend.

    That's unfortunate for a whole lineup of outdoor events: pet walks, art festivals, Chasco Fiesta in New Port Richey and the Tampa Bay Blues Festival in St. Petersburg.

    "The blues will persevere. We're praying for a break in the weather, but people should bring rain gear,' said Chuck Ross, an organizer of the three-day blues concert. "I think we're going to find out just how loyal our fan base is."

    The good news is that the Tampa Bay area is getting much-needed rain.

    As of Wednesday, before the current round of showers began, the central region of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which includes Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, had recorded 3.19 inches of rain for March. The average is 3.37 inches.

    "I don't think there's any question we'll take it over the top there by the end of the month," said Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan.

    The northern region, which includes Hernando and Citrus counties, had bested its March average of 3.62 inches even before the new rains came, recording 4.61 inches.

    This marks the first time since September that the central region has bested a monthly average and the first time since June for the north.

    Although water officials were delighted by the rain, Molligan cautioned, "I think it's quite safe to say this will not end the drought" that has lasted more than two years.

    - Times staff writers Brady Dennis, Jean Heller, Robert King, Alex Leary, Angela Moore and Jorge Sanchez contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press.

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