US storm system spawns Florida tornado

Severe weather, including a possible tornado, damaged about 50 homes in central Florida before the system became a subtropical depression on Friday and had parts of the Gulf Coast under tropical-storm warnings.

One person suffered a minor cut in Eustis, and no other injuries were reported in the area about 48km north-west of Orlando, Lake county sheriff’s Sergeant John Herrell said. Crews went door to door to make sure everyone was safe after the storm.

Radar indicated a tornado touched down late on Thursday from a storm system that crossed through the state before spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, forecasters said.

That system developed into a subtropical depression hours later, with tropical-storm warnings posted from Apalachicola in Florida’s Panhandle westward to the mouth of the Mississippi River, including New Orleans, the National Hurricane Centre said.

At 3pm GMT, the depression had top sustained winds of about 56km/h and was centred about 72km south-west of Apalachicola. The depression’s centre will be moving nearly parallel to the coastline on Friday, forecasters said. Rain and wind from the system were still over parts of Florida.

Herrell said 20 houses were uninhabitable and about 30 other homes had broken windows, debris from fallen tree branches and roof damage. He said the second storey was shorn off one house, but the residents escaped unharmed.

Television news footage showed a boat overturned in a yard, a toppled mobile home and downed trees. About 300 people were without electricity, but power was expected to be restored by sundown, officials said.

Brett MacLaughlin said he, his mother and stepfather were sitting on their back porch, watching the thunderstorm, when they noticed odd cloud formations and an eerie quiet.

”That’s when we started to hear the freight train that everybody talks about,” said MacLaughlin (20(. ”It just got louder. The wind picked up immensely within seconds.”

The trio ran into the bathroom, where water began pouring out of the toilet as the apparent tornado passed. After the two-minute ordeal, MacLaughlin said he walked out of the bathroom to see a jumble of glass and leaves in the home. A 1950s-era barn behind the home was demolished, he said.

The late-night storm caused much less damage than the deadly tornadoes that hit the same area in the dark, early morning hours of February 2, killing 21 people and destroying hundreds of homes in Lake, Sumter and Volusia counties.

Gulf Coast residents and the oil industry were making early preparations ahead of the depression.

In Louisiana, which was smacked by Hurricane Katrina two years ago, the governor declared a state of emergency late on Thursday, putting the National Guard on alert and school buses, ambulances and evacuation shelter workers on standby.

Oil-industry workers have left five production platforms in the Gulf, and three drilling rigs have been evacuated, according to the federal Minerals Management Service. In Mississippi, officials in coastal Hancock County handed out sandbags. — Sapa-AP

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