WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A nasty slap from the outer bands of Tropical Storm Debby uprooted trees, smashed railroad crossing bars, toppled light poles and dumped record rainfall for the day across Palm Beach County.
A tornado watch that expired at 8 p.m. gave the region a chance to exhale and take stock of the damage.
Emergency officials stopped short of concluding an afternoon tornado touched down in West Palm Beach, but it sure felt like one to Marc Mitchell and co-workers at the Marriott Hotel on Okeechobee Boulevard.
“It had to be a twister,” Mitchell said. “It was like a white fog. You couldn’t see anything. It was real loud.”
Outdoor chairs and tables at the Marriott flew into the air and awnings tore, he said. Mitchell said a waitress told co-workers, “I know what I saw. It was a tornado.”
There were no injuries reported, but power was out to at least 1,300 Florida Power & Light customers around Palm Beach County by the early afternoon. That was down to 850 in scattered outages in the early evening.
West Palm Beach got soaked with a record five inches of rain well before nightfall, easily breaking the old mark for the day of 3.23 inches in 1978. Heavy rain caused a roof to collapse in Riveria Beach, forcing the evacuation of an elderly couple.
The likelihood of rain in West Palm Beach is expected to ease to 60 percent Monday from 80 percent overnight, but a continued threat from thunderstorms and tornadoes cannot be ruled out, said Mike Bettwy, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Miami.
“We could have more severe weather,” Bettwy said.
Sheriff’s and fire-rescue workers surveying the scene in West Palm Beach concluded the damage was consistent with straight-line winds. They did not find immediately find any witnesses who saw a funnel.
“We don’t have reason to call it a tornado,” said Brian Hanley, an emergency management specialist for Palm Beach County.
West Palm Beach resident Sade Byrd said it sounded like “hurricane-force winds” though she and her neighbors did not a see a twister, they said.
Passengers scurried inside the Greyhound bus station on Tamarind Avenue north of Okeechobee Boulevard when powerful lightning and winds came on suddenly. A downed tree forced a Greyhound bus to pick up passengers further away from the station than usual, a ticket clerk said. Crews began working to clear debris.
Nearby, some big trees were upended with roots showing.
National Weather Service officials noticed the event about 1:22 p.m.
“From a radar perspective it certainly had a strong rotation,” Bettwy said.
In Riviera Beach, rain fell so fiercely that it caved in the roof of a house occupied by an elderly couple, in the 400 block of West 34th Street. City spokeswoman Rose Anne Brown said water was streaming from the roof and splashing dangerously close to a breaker box. The fire department evacuated the house. The local chapter of the Red Cross arranged for the couple to stay in a hotel, and also assisted a family in Pahokee displaced by an electrical problem.
The culprit for all this was Debby, the tropical storm roiling in the Gulf of Mexico. It spun off tendrils of severe weather that raked most of Florida including Palm Beach County.
By 11 a.m. today, the National Weather Service issued the first of what would become, within three hours, seven tornado warnings and watches for the area. Fresh warnings were still being issued after 6 p.m.
Heavy rains snarled traffic in the area on Interstate 95 and Florida’s Turnpike. State troopers got reports of at least 15 crashes on the roadways between St. Lucie and Broward counties.
The storms knocked out power for about 1,300 homes scattered across Palm Beach County, said Florida Power & Light spokesman Bryan Garner. Outages were reported around Delray Beach, Wellington, suburban Lake Worth, and Riviera Beach, and some residents near the storm damage in West Palm Beach said they lost power as well.
In Lake Worth, which operates its own power plant, about 100 homes lost electricity at the height of the storms. The city restored power to most of those, a Lake Worth utilities official said, though some houses in the College Park neighborhood were without electricity for an extended period. The culprit was a downed line on the city’s north side.
Tropical Storm Debby meandered northward through the Gulf of Mexico. The storm packed 60-mph winds and was threatening the Florida Panhandle, the coasts near the Mississippi-Alabama border and portions of the Louisiana coastline, not including the New Orleans area, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
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