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Skies erupt over Pinellas

Wind, lighting and rain pound St. Petersburg at rush hour. Once again, shops on Beach Drive are flooded.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 20, 2001

Wind, lighting and rain pound St. Petersburg at rush hour. Once again, shops on Beach Drive are flooded.

ST. PETERSBURG -- South Pinellas County took a pounding Tuesday from the worst thunderstorm of the season so far, and it may be a harbinger of things to come.

The conditions should be ripe for more storms over the next couple of days.

Tuesday afternoon brought heavy lightning, torrential rain and scattered power outages to the St. Petersburg area. Dozens of cars stalled on flooded streets in rush-hour traffic. Shops along downtown's Beach Drive flooded for the second time in two years.

"There was so much water coming down at one time, it was blowing manhole covers off of manholes," said St. Petersburg police communications supervisor Joel Pilcher. "Traffic lights were out. People were in disabled vehicles. There was water everywhere."

A line of storms extended all the way up Florida's West Coast Tuesday. Locally, the hardest-hit counties were southern Pinellas, western Hernando and northern Hillsborough, with some areas receiving 21/2 to 3 inches of rain as well as dime-sized hail.

"We had a pretty good swath of rain along the coastal counties," said National Weather Service meteorologist John McMichael. "You may see a similar pattern Wednesday and possibly the first half of Thursday."

Winds have been blowing out of the east and southeast, pushing seabreezes from Florida's east coast across the state, where they have been colliding with Gulf of Mexico seabreezes to cause rain.

The winds may shift by Friday, and rain over the weekend more likely may be in the interior of the state, McMichael said.

Tuesday's rain was fierce in St. Petersburg. Much of the city got about 2 inches of rain between 5:15 and 7 p.m.

"We had trees and wires down, wires sparking, quite a few vehicle accidents, so many different things," said Pinellas County emergency communications supervisor Michael Roos.

Lightning strikes set a house on fire in St. Petersburg's Placido Bayou neighborhood and sparked fires on power poles and transformers on Shore Acres Boulevard and on the Pinellas Bayway.

The storm flooded intersections along main thoroughfares such as Fourth Street and Central Avenue, and knocked down power lines in South Pasadena and Treasure Island.

For the second time in two years, stormwater flooded upscale boutiques in a high-rent shopping strip on Beach Drive.

"The city needs to address these sewers. They're putting in more high-rises down here, and it's obvious the sewers can't handle the runoff," said Harriet Rambeaux, owner of the Red Cloud Indian Arts gallery. "I've been in my shop for 11 years, and we were never flooded until last year."

When the same businesses flooded July 21, frustrated shop owners speculated that dirt from the BayWalk entertainment complex construction site had clogged storm sewers. But the city engineer decided a 4-inch downpour, not downtown construction, was responsible for last year's flooding.

The city planned to add more storm drain grates to guard against flooding.

On Tuesday, five stores in the 200 block of Beach Drive were flooded with about 2 inches of water, said landlord Cooper Petagna.

"What's disturbing is, we were told last year that a new drainage system would correct the problem," he said. "This was a pretty serious storm, but quite frankly, I don't think it was unusual for St. Petersburg."

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