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Mother Nature smacks Manatee with high winds, scores of lightning strikes

MANATEE — Joe Thiergartner heard something in the wee hours that brought back memories, and not good ones.

He stepped outside cautiously and peered down eerily still 76th Street East in Creekwood, near Interstate 75 and State Road 70. He could hear something approaching.

“I won’t call it a tornado,” Thiergartner said. “But whatever it was came straight down the road, moving north to south. It came howling through.”

Richard Rude, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin, explained what Thiergartner and many other Manatee residents experienced between midnight and 2 a.m. Wednesday: It was a frontal-type boundary packing winds reaching 40 to 50 mph and lightning that scorched the sky.

The storm was huge, about the size of all of Manatee County, and brought with it a lot of lightning, said Josh Linker, a meteorologist with Bay News 9.

“We averaged 1,200 to 1,400 lightning strikes per 15 minutes or 100 a minute,” Linker said.

Similar thunderstorms could develop today, Rude said.

The National Weather Service had a severe thunderstorm watch in effect until midnight and there were warnings through the day.

At least one caller reported seeing a funnel cloud on Dock Road near Port Manatee just before midnight, said Heather Hedgecock, a shift captain for the Manatee County 911 call center.

“We couldn’t officially confirm the funnel and we didn’t get any report of damage,” said Hedgecock, noting that the storm produced some short-lived power outages.

Tornado or not, the two-hour freaky storm knocked out a transformer near Linger Lodge Road, exploded a 25-foot oak limb on 44th Avenue East and knocked down a 20-foot oak limb in Creek-wood across the street from the Thiergartners.

“I’ve been around here a long time and I know what these things feel like,” Thiergartner said. “This was a mini-tropical storm.”

The storm struck Sarasota in the Gulf Gate area, said Jim Burgess, a pool cleaner.

“I was in the Gulf Gate area at 1 a.m. and it felt like a hurricane,” said Burgess. “The rain was going sideways and the wind could nearly knock you over. The storm also struck the St. Petersburg area, damaging 15 homes in a mobile home park in Lealman, according to Larry Thompson of the Lealman Fire District.

Four of the homes there received major damage.

“Residents described heavy hail in the area and winds sounding like a train was coming through,” Thompson said.

The Lealman Fire District responded to 11 storm-related incidents between midnight and 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, Thompson said.

Thiergartner and his wife, Lila, spent the afternoon filling garbage bags with royal palm fronds that had blown off a tree behind their home. The home next door lost solar panels from its pool and the pool screen was ripped at another neighbor’s home.

The Thiergartners have a rain gauge and recorded three-quarters of an inch during the storm.

Across the street, Carl Hartley was staring at the 20-foot limb near his driveway.

“I slept through the storm and didn’t know the branch was down until I opened the garage,” Hartley said.

Bob and Bev Molloy were asleep in their home on 44th Avenue East, near Morgan Johnson Road, when the storm passed over them.

A blast of lightning bathed their house in white light and ear-piercing sound.

The bolt sent pieces of a tall oak flying like shrapnel, piercing the roof and a spare bedroom window, cracking part of the home’s stucco wall and spraying exploded tree pieces all over the front lawn.

“I’ll tell you what, I’ve never been through something like this,” said Bob Molloy, who is from England and is a former pub operator.

“If someone had been standing outside my house, they would have been stone cold dead.”

After the bolt hit the oak, it jumped into a palm about 20 feet away, burning a large hole in the crown of it.

“It sounded like a bomb went off,” Molloy said. “I thought someone had driven into the side of my house. The sound was so loud that my wife swallowed her tongue and she’s still having trouble talking.”