A 300-foot-wide tornado with winds reaching 100 mph touched down in St. Petersburg Thursday afternoon, and local officials praised first responders for their quick response.
Lt. Garth Swingle with St. Petersburg Fire Rescue (SPFR) told the Catalyst that several trees fell on homes along 9th Avenue North, between 58th Street and 49th Street, and the All Children’s Academy. Despite the damage, he was still unaware of any reported injuries Friday.
The preschool is adjacent to St. Vincent’s Episcopal Church. Luckily, kids and staffers were on the opposite end of the building when gusts uprooted a large tree and sent it crashing through the roof. Swingle said his department combed the area block-by-block and only found property damage.
He relayed that the National Weather Service classified the tornado as an EF1, with winds between 85-100 mph. Its path was relatively short, traveling just a quarter mile. While Swingle noted tornadoes touching down in the city is a rare occurrence, his department continuously prepares for building collapses and damage assessments.
“It’s one of those low chances but high-risk situations,” said Swingle. “So, that’s the reason we train so heavily on it.”
Thursday’s severe weather, which accompanied a passing cold front, briefly knocked power out in the area. However, Swingle said it was surprising how quickly Duke Florida restored electricity.
Councilmember Copley Gerdes, who lives near the affected neighborhood on the city’s westside, lauded SPFR and other responders for their rapid response at Thursday’s city council meeting.
“That was unbelievable,” said Gerdes. “I got a call – and I was literally in my car – and I was beat by probably four fire trucks and 20 police officers, and the Parks and Rec (Department) was already at Lake Pasadena picking up debris.”
In addition to those departments, he noted that City Administrator Rob Gerdes was also on the scene, talking with residents and offering his assistance.
“I can’t even explain how appreciative the citizens were at the immediate response,” said Councilmember Gerdes. “And I just wanted to give a big heartfelt thank you from me.”
Like most first responders, Swingle said his team was just fulfilling its duty. He explained that SPFR received several reports of two collapsed structure incidents, which will automatically trigger a significant response.
In addition, he said a local station is right down the road and home to engine and rescue personnel and a district chief. Swingle did express that responders “adapted very well” when faced with multiple areas of concern in close proximity.
“And able to take care of the overall damage of everything and make sure everybody’s safe at each of those instances,” he added.
As of Friday afternoon, Swingle said the tree was still in the preschool, and the owner will need an engineering firm to help identify damage costs and a timeline for reopening. He said city officials are also awaiting results from a complete damage assessment.
Officials with All Children’s Academy and St. Vincent’s Episcopal Church could not immediately be reached for comment.