The Tampa Bay area braced for the worst as tornado watches blanketed the region ahead of a severe storm front Tuesday. But the area made it through relatively unscathed.
Still, the storm, which passed over Hernando and Pasco counties early in the afternoon, St. Petersburg about 3 p.m. and Tampa shortly thereafter, brought high wind, strong rain, low visibility and hail, temporarily grounding flights, closing the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and leaving thousands without power.
Hail falling in St. Petersburg. Stay safe out there. pic.twitter.com/YJKUmDNGGL— Steve Contorno (@scontorno) March 20, 2018
A lightning strike caused a fire that burned up structure on 40th Avenue S in St. Petersburg, firefighters there said. Nobody was injured.
Duke Energy reported more than 23,000 customers in Pinellas County were without power after the storm rolled through. Traffic lights in downtown St. Petersburg stopped working.
The utility reported 149 customers without power in Pasco County, and only one customer without power in Hernando.
Officials in those counties said there was no significant damage, despite early concerns of possible tornado activity. No significant damage was reported in Hillsborough County.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued a ground stop for all flights into and out of Tampa International Airport on Tuesday. It was lifted by 4 p.m., though the airport reported it was still seeing weather-related delays. Airport officials reported there were 124 delays and four cancellations due to weather as of 3:37 p.m.
Travelers should check with TIA for the status of their flights.
The high wind speeds forced Florida Highway Patrol troopers to close down the Sunshine Skyway Bridge for about 45 minutes in the 4 o’clock hour, which they do when sustained wind speeds reach 40 m.p.h., disrupting the evening commute.
Troopers said there is no predetermined wind speed at which they shut down the bay area’s other bridges, though they can close those, too, if they feel driving over them would be unsafe.
"We monitor the bridges all the time," said Sgt. Steve Gaskins of the Florida Highway Patrol. "There are no wind speeds assigned to the bridges that connect St. Petersburg with Tampa, but if the weather becomes a problem then we will close those bridges. We’ve done it before for weather-related issues."
Severe weather also cancelled the Tampa Bay Rays’ 6:05 p.m. spring training game against Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota.
The storm comes on the day that marks the beginning of spring. But instead of flowers and sunshine there will be more thunderstorms and strong winds — and even hail.
The same cold front drove thunderstorms through Alabama on Monday night, dropping tennis ball-sized hail and tornadoes. Pinellas residents posted on social media about seeing falling chunks of ice.
The line of storms is on the edge of a cold front sweeping east from the Gulf of Mexico over Florida, affecting much of the state’s west coast.
Severe thunderstorms related to same cold front already tore through the Southeast on Monday night. Reports of tornadoes, damaging winds and hail the size of tennis balls outline the severity of these storms.
Despite the rain and wind, temperatures today will remain near the upper 70s with an evening low near 56, forecasters said. The impending cold front will drive temperatures back into the upper 60s and low 70s until the weekend, when a warming trend returns.
Tampa will be looking at a much sunnier spring after the storms dissipate overnight, forecasters said.