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Waterspout hits Tampa as weak tornado

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 09:44 PM

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TAMPA -

The wind caught Rachel Prophet's attention as she prepared for the lunch crowd Tuesday at her Channel District restaurant.

"I was sitting down eating breakfast, and the wind just started to blow," said Prophet, 26, manager of Taverna Opa. "It was a howling noise, a loud piercing noise. All the trees outside were just whipping, whipping, whipping."

A gust flung open the front door, and when Prophet ran to close it, she noticed the danger above her: The large metal frame holding up the Greek restaurant's awning was tearing apart.

One corner of the heavy frame broke free, swinging down toward Prophet before it was lifted away by the wind.

"I thought it was going to fly toward the aquarium," Prophet said of the popular tourist attraction next door.

But the awning slammed down again, this time crashing through the window above the front door and flinging shards of glass everywhere.

"I was a little shaken up," Prophet said. "I'm not going to lie. I was scared."

The bellowing gusts Prophet encountered Tuesday were churned out by a waterspout that formed in the channels north of Harbour Island, according to the National Weather Service.

The waterspout, spawned by severe thunderstorms sweeping across the region, made landfall near downtown Tampa as a weak tornado about 11:20 a.m., the weather service said.

The swirling winds damaged roofs, tore off tree branches, toppled lampposts and caused traffic signal outages in the Channel District and in the industrial sector along Adamo Drive.

Minor damage also was reported on Davis Islands and at the Westin Tampa Harbour Island hotel, city officials said.

No one was injured during the storm, city spokeswoman Ali Glisson said. The cost of the storm damage was not immediately available.

Although Tuesday began with a light drizzle, the storms picked up through the morning as a cold front pushed down from the north.

The storms prompted the weather service to issue a tornado watch for the entire Tampa Bay area that was canceled at 1 p.m.

Prophet said she didn't see the waterspout.

Keith Weitzmann, a cook at Taverna Opa, said he didn't see the spout or a funnel cloud. "But I heard it," Weitzmann said as he swept the shattered glass in front of the Greek restaurant. "It was like a freight train."

No customers were in the restaurant during the storm, Prophet said.

Around the corner at Hooters, general manager Robert Fisher said the sky turned an ominous shade of orange shortly after 11 a.m.

"Very suddenly, it got very windy," he said.

The front door flew open, then slammed shut, Fisher said. He ushered employees and customers away from windows just as a streetlamp outside snapped in half.

Tables and chairs in Hooters' outside patio were tossed and damaged. The wind plucked one table from the patio and catapulted it across the street, where it crashed into the wall of a parking garage.

"The whole thing lasted only 30 to 45 seconds," Fisher said.

Charter bus driver Robert Hagemann said he was about to drop off a church group from Englewood at The Florida Aquarium when the wind picked up.

"All of the sudden it hit," Hagemann said.

He told the 55 passengers to stay onboard until the wind died down.

"It rocked the bus," he said. "It was a short duration, but it was powerful. All kinds of debris were flying around."

The severe weather also caused students at a handful of area schools to get a break from Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test writing exams.

Six Pasco County elementary schools opted to wait until today to give students the test. One school in Pinellas County canceled FCAT testing on Tuesday; no schools in Hillsborough County were affected by delays.

The weather cleared by midafternoon Tuesday, and a gradual cool-down is expected this week, culminating with another cold snap this weekend.

Highs today are expected to be in the upper 70s, with lows near 60, said National Weather Service forecaster Nicole Carlisle.

The chilly blast this weekend will bring highs in the upper 50s to low 60s and lows in the low to mid-40s, she said.


rreyes@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7920 Twitter: @TBORay

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