A strong storm, possibly a tornado, hit southwest Marion County early Saturday, damaging buildings on State Road 200 and homes in the El Dorado subdivision off Southwest 24th Avenue.
The storm also caused a crash on Interstate 75 at SR 200 involving two semitractor-trailers and left some parts of the county with uprooted trees, downed fences and other damage.
There were no reported injuries, but there was so much property damage that the Marion County Sheriff’s Office made tarps available to citizens at its multipurpose building, 3300 NW 10th St., Ocala.
What we know:Potential tornado damage reported in Marion County; More winds ahead. Here’s what we know.
Ocala/Gainesville weekend weather:Severe thunderstorms, freezing temps expected this weekend
A previous storm:Radar didn’t catch the EF-1 tornado that hit Ocala with 110 mph wind
According to Preston Bowlin, the county’s emergency management director, it appears the storm front moved rapidly from west to east, starting in Dunnellon, heading toward West Port High School, then moving near the Fore Ranch subdivision, SR 200, and then to the El Dorado community.
The National Weather Service dispatched a team to assess the damage and determine whether the storm was a tornado and, if so, what strength it reached. The storm struck about 8 a.m.
Kevin Guthrie, head of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, was in Ocala on Saturday. In a tweet, he referred to the storm as a tornado and promised state support for local response efforts.
Property damage in El Dorado
According to preliminary reports, the El Dorado subdivision appears to have suffered the worst property damage. The gated community, which has 62 lots, is off Southwest 24th Avenue in Ocala, not far from Southwest 27th Avenue (Shady Road/County Road 475A.)
Sheriff Billy Woods, County Commissioner Kathy Bryant and Bowlin were on scene Saturday morning reviewing the damage. Also there was state Rep. Joe Harding, an El Dorado resident who rode out the storm with his family.
Harding’s wife, Amanda, told the Star-Banner that she and her family took shelter in a closet a bit after 8:15 a.m.
She said she was cleaning up breakfast dishes when the calm, gray conditions outside suddenly turned crazy. She saw items flying across the yard and heard a noise like a freight train.
She screamed for her children and husband to go into a closet.
Another El Dorado resident, Hema Patel, said her father was praying inside a bedroom of the family home Saturday morning. He finished, left the room, and moments later the ceiling caved in.
He was not injured.
Hema Patel was driving her Honda sedan, getting ready to leave El Dorado, when all of a sudden, at the gate, her vehicle was lifted completely off the ground and “stuff started flying all around.”
She stayed in the car. Her daughter called her cellphone. Patel returned home to find the roof of her home had been blown off.
All around her home were downed trees, damaged fences and other debris. First responders went door to door conducting well-being checks, and neighbors helped clear the streets.
One of Patel’s neighbors, Sara Ybarra, said she was sleeping after a return from the Tampa airport. She heard a sound “that I have never heard before.”
Her dog was hysterical. Ybarra stayed still and looked out the window. Once everything calmed down, she went outside to survey the damage.
Other areas of Marion also were damaged
The storm caused widespread damage at the Saddleworth Green apartments (formerly known as Paddock Park Apartments), 2901 SW 41st St., Ocala. There were damaged roofs, uprooted trees, trees atop vehicles, ripped patio screens, trees blocking roads and more.
Among the businesses damaged was the Paddock Park Animal Care Center, 3931 SW 42nd St., where 49 cats and dogs had to be evacuated.
Also damaged was the AdventHealth Ocala building now under construction on SR 200 at 43rd Street, and the Sullivan Cadillac dealership on the other side of the highway.
For several hours, the portion of SR 200 between Southwest 38th Court and Southwest 43rd Street Road – an area just west of I-75 – was blocked and littered with debris. Meanwhile, utility workers were on Southwest 27th Avenue dealing with the storm’s aftermath. A portion of SR opened in the afternoon. Sections of 27th Avenue also re-opened for traffic as the cleanup continued.
In a Facebook post, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office reported some road blockage at the Stone Creek subdivision (Southwest 89th Court Road), plus fallen trees and traffic light outages in the Dunnellon area.
About that truck crash on I-75
The Star-Banner interviewed both truck drivers involved in the crash.
Jagroop Singh was hauling an empty trailer from Lakeland to Georgia, where he was scheduled to pick up a load. About 8 a.m., Singh was northbound in the middle lane, going only 45 to 50 mph because of the pouring rain.
He came upon another truck to his right. Then there was a big gust of wind.
The next thing Singh knew, his truck overturned to the left. In the process, even though his truck was tilting in the opposite direction, it still bumped the other truck, which tumbled to its right and down an embankment near the SR 200 ramp.
The other driver, Alex Kolosov, was able to crawl out after his rig overturned. Neither he nor Singh was injured.
Kolosov was hauling orange juice from Bradenton to Maryland.
Reactions to Saturday morning’s storm was swift
LifeSouth Community Blood Centers issued an alert on Saturday: “Severe weather has caused blood drive cancellations across the community. With an already depleted blood supply, we need you (donors) now!”
The Red Cross and Salvation Army activated, offering assistance to displaced residents and helping first responders and emergency crews.
Other groups and individuals took to social media to share pictures, videos, anecdotes, updates and well wishes.
“Please pray for the crews and first responders out in the weather assessing the damage today and also those will need assistance in the aftermath,” County Commission Chairman Carl Zalak said in a Marion County government Facebook post.
At 2:45 p.m., the Humane Society of Marion County posted a Facebook update on those displaced animals from the Paddock Park facility.
“All of the animals are safe!” the post reads. “The HSMC worked with Paddock Park to bring crates for all of the dogs. They have been transported safely to The Dog Walker Ranch.”
Why no warning from Alert Marion?
Some residents on social media were asking why emergency management didn’t issue an alert about the storm. The Alert Marion system typically makes automated calls and text messages in such cases.
The sheriff’s office said the information triggering such alerts typically comes from the National Weather Service in Jacksonville. However, that system has been offline since March 7 and is not expected to be back until March 21.
During that period, Marion County has been relying on the NWS offices in Tampa Bay and Valdosta, Georgia. However, because Saturday morning’s storm registered below 10,000 feet, those radar systems did not pick it up and thus no alert was directed to Marion County Emergency Management.
The National Weather Service in Jacksonville did issue a special weather statement for Ocala, Gainesville and Green Cove Springs about 8 a.m.
Later, it also posted special weather statements for Summerfield, Weirsdale, East Lake Weir and Salt Springs.
Contact Austin L. Miller at 867-4118, firstname.lastname@example.org or @almillerosb.