Tornado damages hundreds of homes, surprises Florida weather fo

Saturday, August 9, 2003

RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. -- Donald Garcia watched as a funnel cloud with winds over 100 mph tore off his mobile home's awning then hopped across the street, uprooting an old oak tree and slamming it into a neighbor's home.

He screamed to his wife and ran with her into a bathroom, waiting out the tornado as it picked up dozens of nearby homes and smashed them onto their sides, demolishing them and their contents.

His home was spared.

"It's lucky that everyone got out alive. That's the miracle of this," Garcia said Friday.

Thursday's tornado surprised forecasters and carved a three-mile path of destruction, damaging or destroying 500 homes but causing only minor injuries. Gov. Jeb Bush declared an emergency Friday morning that sent state workers to help assess damage and render aid.

Most of the damage was in Riviera Beach and Palm Beach Gardens. The twister flipped over two tractor trailers, blew railroad boxcars off the tracks and tore the roof off a Pepsi plant. Some 400 homes remained without power Friday, officials said, down from 30,000 originally.

"I'll tell you truly, I was scared," said Riviera Beach resident J.R. Brown, surveying the damage as police cars roamed the streets.

Bernard Desilio, manager of Onesole, a Riviera Beach shoe manufacturer, was outside moving boxes when the sky turned black and lit up with lightning.

"I ran so fast I lost my shoes," Desilio said.

The heaviest damage appeared to be at the A Garden Walk mobile home park, where several of the 420 units were destroyed. A gas leak temporarily forced out 200 residents.

"It's going to be more than a cleanup -- people's whole lives are gone," said Garcia, who lives in the park. "It's lucky that everyone got out alive. That's the miracle of this."

The tornado had winds of 73 to 112 mph, or an F1 on the Fujita scale, which ranks the strength of tornadoes on a scale ranging from F0 as the weakest to F5 as the strongest, said Rusty Pfost, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Miami.

Forecasters were surprised at the rapid development of the system and because tornadoes normally do not form in South Florida in August, Pfost said.

Looting was reported in Riviera Beach, and Palm Beach County Sheriff Ed Bieluch sent out extra deputies to guard against looting and other crimes. Two suspected looters were arrested late Thursday in an industrial park near the mobile home park, officials said.

The National Weather Service said the tornado was spotted at 5:13 p.m. and cleared out by 5:40 p.m.

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