By CRAIG PITTMAN and BRYAN GILMER
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001
A blustery Tropical Storm Gabrielle slogged ashore Friday morning, flooding streets up to the mailboxes, ripping off roofs and knocking down trees and American flags. No injuries were reported.
The biggest casualties were power lines. More than 500,000 utility customers across the state lost electricity. Utility officials said crews would work through the weekend to restore power.
Gabrielle hit land between Sarasota and Venice about 7 a.m. with steady winds estimated by the National Hurricane Center at about 70 mph, not quite enough to be a hurricane. It was accompanied on its south side by storm surges of 3 to 5 feet above normal.
After making landfall, the storm continued heading northeast, crossing the state at about 12 mph. It was expected to move into the open Atlantic early today near Daytona Beach.
The storm pelted the coast with blowing rain for hours. Gibsonton reported nearly a foot of rain, and nearly everywhere in the Tampa Bay area received at least a couple of inches. Still, although schools, bridges and theme parks closed, for some coastal residents, Gabrielle barely qualified as something to worry about.
"It's like an afternoon thunderstorm, only it's longer," said Belleair Bluffs resident Roger Hollander.
The storm caused little serious damage. One man was stuck in a drain pipe as waters rose in Sarasota. He was rescued and taken to a hospital. Tornadoes were spotted in Venice and Manatee County, but no injuries were reported.
St. Petersburg fire Lt. Chris Bengivengo said the department handled two house fires as a result of storm damage to where power lines entered the homes. But no one was hurt and the homes were not destroyed, he said.
In St. Petersburg, two traffic signals were knocked down and had to be fixed, and the city removed more than 50 fallen trees or limbs.
"We got lucky," city engineer Mike Connors said.
Not everyone felt that way, especially the people whose power was likely to stay off for much of the weekend. Karen Windon, Manatee County's public safety director, reported fielding calls from "people who were extremely bored and couldn't live without modern conveniences like, "What do you mean no video games for two days?' "
About 100,000 customers of Florida Power, stretching from St. Petersburg to Ocala, could be without power until late today. In the Tampa area, 70,000 customers served by Tampa Electric Co. lost electricity. Florida Power & Light Co. said more than 400,000 customers were in the dark, about half in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
Pinellas County emergency operations director David Bilodeau was not aware of the power outages until a reporter informed him. He was surprised at the extent of the outages but said a bigger storm would have been even worse: "With a Category 3 (hurricane), instead of three days, you'd be without power for three weeks."
The Gandy and Sunshine Skyway bridges were closed for several hours Friday because of the blinding rain and high winds. Florida Highway Patrol officials said there were car crashes throughout the area but no fatalities.
By Friday afternoon, State Farm insurance officials said they had received 1,300 homeowner claims and about 200 auto claims, most of them from Sarasota and Manatee counties.
The wind took a toll on roofs, ripping one off a Bradenton motel, causing no injuries but forcing the evacuation of 100 people.
At Clearwater Egg & Poultry, the wind lifted the metal roof from a loading dock and slammed it down twice, said owner David Rhoden. Then a third gust flipped what was left over a power line.
"The roof was in the air, folded in half, and sparks were going everywhere," said employee Florence Bussell, who said it "sounded like a huge soda can crumbling."
A popular Anna Maria Island bar, Hurricane Hank's, lost power but that did not deter customers looking for a place to hunker down with a brew. Jim Wilson drove up and left his truck running outside the darkened pub.
"You got ice," Wilson, 57, said as he walked through the door. "Who needs power?"
Sarasota's popular St. Armands Circle, known for its upscale boutiques and restaurants, was closed to traffic for several hours because of flooding.
In Charlotte County, the west wind and incoming tide pushed the Peace River into downtown Punta Gorda. Several main thoroughfares were covered with up to 3 feet of water, and about 60 residents were evacuated. At the 30-room Sea Cove Motel in Punta Gorda, the river had overtaken the parking lot and was lapping at the threshold of the building.
"We have the ocean in our front yard," said Elvira Leyeza, motel owner.
Despite the storm, Walt Disney World remained open, although three Central Florida water parks were closed and exposed rides were shut down. Cypress Gardens theme park in Winter Haven also closed for the day.
Shore Acres in northeast St. Petersburg is usually the soggiest of Pinellas neighborhoods during a storm. Friday served up what residents expected: intersections under 2 feet of water, with kids canoeing on streets-turned-rivers.
But residents usually careful to line sandbags around doors and bring in patio furniture didn't take any obvious precautions this time, and for once seemed unfazed by streets full of water. It was a matter of perspective, explained Angelo Russo as he braved the pelting rain to gather fallen branches and scattered shingles around his yard.
"When you think of what we're going through here and what they're going through in New York," Russo said, "this is a piece of cake."
- Times staff writers Kathryn Wexler, Kelly Ryan, Melia Bowie, Alicia Caldwell, Jeff Harrington, Leanora Minai, Monique Fields and Amy Wimmer contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press.