Powerful storms batter county: Forecast calls for clearing by the Fourth of July

MANATEE — Driving rain, powerful thunderstorms and dangerous lightning pounded Southwest Florida off and on all day, and people dealt with fires, power outages, waterlogged streets and dangerous surf.

An estimated two to four inches of rain fell in Manatee County on Wednesday, and more was forecast for today and Friday.

By the Fourth of July, Saturday, the forecast calls for clearing, possibly with a more typical summertime shower in the afternoon, National Weather Service forecaster Richard Rude said.

Some people had it worse than others during the siege of bad weather.

Lightning was believed to have struck a house in Lakewood Ranch at about 5 p.m., and the fire did an estimated $700,000 to $800,000 damage, a fire marshal said.

A neighbor, Rhonda Maule, said the noise from the apparent a lightning strike “sounded like a sonic boom. I went about ten miles in the air.”

After lightning hit a Florida Power & Light facility at 10:39 a.m., 3,893 customers lost electric power, according to Sarah Marmion, a spokeswoman for the company. By 11:35 a.m., 3,500 customers’ power was restored, but at 4 p.m., 300 still were still without electricity.

“We have crews working on-site, but they can’t go up in the buckets when it’s really stormy and certainly, when it’s lightning,” she explained.

“It’s too dangerous for our guys.”

By the end of the day, all power was restored, she said.

Along the Gulf of Mexico, the Weather Service reported surf of between two to four feet, with dangerous rip currents and undertows.

A rip current is a 10- to 30-yard wide channel of water that can pull even a strong swimmer into deeper water, according to a Weather Service statement.

The weather service issued a “hazardous weather outlook” for west central and Southwest Florida after a tropical wave near the Yucatan Peninsula did not develop into a tropical storm or a hurricane, but sent its moisture our way, said Weather Service forecaster Anthony Reynes.

“The wave didn’t develop, but the moisture field, the leftover moisture, is being driven into the (Florida) peninsula by the southwestern winds,” said Reynes.

“In our case, we needed the rain, these are certainly beneficial rains,” he added, saying the weather would continue to be soggy through today, but would start drying out by the Fourth of July weekend.

Weather service readings showed that altogether, 3.59 inches of rain fell in June, 3.82 inches below the normal level of 7.41 inches, said Reynes.

“Basically, almost half of that rain fell yesterday in just one day,” said Reynes, referring to Tuesday’s downpour, measuring 1.28 inches at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. “That’s not good, either. Because normally, when you’re kind of dry, you want rain on a more regular basis, not all at once” because of the possibility of flooding.

Today, there is a 70 percent chance of rain showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon, a 40 percent chance tonight, and a 60 percent chance Friday.

By Saturday, Tampa Bay faces only a 40 percent chance of scattered thunderstorms during the day, and a 20 percent chance at night.

An unofficial rainfall station in Bradenton, which a Weather Service employee keeps, measured 2.72 inches of rain by 10 a.m. Wednesday, with much more following that.

The official NWS station at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport showed 2.28 inches of rain Wednesday by 10 p.m. Radar indicated the rain was widespread in the county from two to four inches.

With all the downpours, Bill Evers Reservoir was still low due to a three-year drought, said Claude Tankersley, director of public works and utilities for the City of Bradenton.

He said the reservoir, located on the Braden River, measured 2.92 feet above sea level Wednesday.

“We still have another foot to fill up the reservoir to be completely full,” said Tankersley.

The reservoir provides drinking water to 60,000 Bradenton residents.

The rain contributed to a rash of minor accidents on local roadways as drivers tried to navigate in mist and great curtains of blowing rain, according to police.

There was minor flooding on Manatee County roads Wednesday, according to Mickey Lutz, manager of the county storm water and road maintenance division.

“We’ve had about eight calls today,” Lutz said at midday. “The worse was probably up on Rye Road, where water was moving across the road, so we put a couple of signs out to warn the drivers.”

A maintenance program his unit has instituted recently has helped reduce the severity of flooding within the county, he said.

Crews have flushed the storm pipes, swept roadways to minimize debris in the storm drains and performed other work to keep the system flowing properly, he added.

Lt. Chris Miller, Florida Highway Patrol public information officer, said anytime it rains, police see an increase in accidents.

“It’s very important, when it is raining, to leave extra distance between yourself and the vehicle in front of you,” said Miller.

“Leave extra time to get to destinations, don’t be in a hurry and be safe out there.”

He said the most important thing is to reduce speed when you’re driving, according to weather conditions.

“Just because the speed limit is 70 mph doesn’t mean it’s safe to go 70 mph,” he said. “In heavy rain, you need to slow down, you can’t drive the same way as when the roads are dry.”

— Herald reporters Carl Nudi and Robert Napper contributed to this report.

Related stories from Bradenton Herald