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Two killed by powerful, overnight storms in Northwest Florida

Debris in the road in this Pensacola neighborhood from Wednesday's storm.
Courtesy photo
Debris in the road in a Cantonment neighborhood from Wednesday's storm.

Storms packing isolated tornadoes and high winds moved through the Florida Panhandle Wednesday night and Thursday morning, killing two people in Washington County and leaving scattered damage in their paths.

Spanning a number of states in the Deep South, the storms produced at least a couple of confirmed tornadoes that left injuries elsewhere.

“We dodged a bullet here; looking at our neighbors to the west of us, to the north of us and even to the east of us after it passed our area, we just — knock on wood — we just come out untouched on this one. We might no be so lucky next time,” said Eric Gilmore, Escambia County’s Public SafetyDirector.

He adds that this is the third severe weather event in as many weeks, in which the area has come out relatively unscathed.

“We had the first one to come through," added Gilmore. "We had the straight-line winds up at Poarch Creek that got the trailer park up there. Then we had the storm system last week that we were warning everybody about, and then we had the one this week. We are in our springtime weather pattern, where we can get the blow-up thunderstorms in the afternoon or we can get the squall lines coming from the west screaming at us.”

Some structural damage is reported in Escambia, and a semi-trailer overturned on Interstate 10’s Escambia Bay Bridge early Thursday morning. According to the Florida Highway Patrol, the accident occurred during heavy rain and 40 mph winds.

Eric Gilmore, Escambia Co. Public Safety Director
Eric Gilmore, Escambia County Public Safety Director

“Two people transported to the hospital — two people and two dogs — we got those people out and took them to the hospital for evaluation and treatment,” Gilmore said. “Crews did a fantastic job getting out on that bridge. We did have a tornado warning during that time.”

In Escambia County, the storms also produced hail, which according to media reports, ranged in size from dimes to golf balls. Investigators from the National Weather Service in Mobile will inspect the damage, and make determinations on just what happened in that moment of time. Gilmore’s office will provide assistance in the way of damage assessment.

“Sometimes they determine by the way the debris field is and how the debris is laid out,” said Gilmore. “They’ll look at what the radar looked like during that time, and the path of a radar-detected storm. The debris field, how are things laid down, and they blew straight down or straight over? Is there pieces of tin up in trees, or is it just in one swath?”

Two major challenges for any public safety agency along the Gulf Coast is preparing newcomers for the spring storms, along with getting them up to speed for hurricane season, which kicks off June 1.

“We are big on public education,” Gilmore said. “The Emergency Management Division here in Escambia County, we’re happy to go out and talk to civic groups, church groups – any group that wants to have a presentation about hurricane preparedness or just weather awareness.”

In Santa Rosa County, reports of downed trees and power lines in the Milton area have been confirmed. Calls seeking an interview for this story were not returned.

This likely will not be the final round of severe weather this spring. Gilmore has what has become a yearly mantra to residents.

“Don’t get complacent," he said. "We did come out good on this one, but complacency is something we tend to get. The last time they said we were at a four out of five [chance of severe weather], we didn’t get this.”

The storms are gone from the Panhandle, but beach goers are advised to use caution near the water. A high-surf warning is in effect until 6 p.m. Thursday and a high rip current risk warning is in effect until Saturday morning.