May 24 2011 by Amy Graff
"What happened to our show?" the kids screamed.
A message about a tornado warning appeared on the screen. A tornado just east of Tampa was spotted.
We were in Dunedin, about 30 minutes west of Tampa.
We were safe, right? Who knows? As a Californian, I don't know a thing about tornadoes.
We loaded everything into the car and I checked out. I asked the lady at the front desk about the tornado warning. She didn't know a thing about it. I figured that it must not be a big deal then.
We drove off and said goodbye to the charming village of Dunedin. We were headed north to Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. A ranger in the Everglades told us that this is where we were guaranteed to see a manatee.
It started to rain. Then it started to thunder. Loud roars. We spotted lightning in the distance. My daughter screamed.
I turned on the radio, looking for a local station that would give us weather and traffic reports.
That loud, ear-piercing beeping filled the car. "This is a tornado warning." The tornado had hit Tampa, and was on it's way to Clearwater, traveling at 35 mph. We were about 15 or 20 miles north of Clearwater.
We were moving slowly along US-19, a two-lane highway filled with traffic lights. We came upon a large puddle of water in the middle of the road. Actually it was more like a lake. The cars ahead turned around and so did we. We navigated our way through backstreets to bypass the flood.
By now sheets of rain were falling. I could barely see outside the window. Every five minutes or so, you'd hear a loud roar and then the black clouds would light up.
We stopped at a gas station. Running from the car into the station, we got soaked and looked as if we'd jumped into a swimming pool with our clothes on.
The gas station was filthy and the man behind the counter didn't have any teeth. Another man walked in and he didn't look any friendlier.
"Ummm...should we be concerned about the tornado? We're driving north to Homosassa Springs. Is this safe?"
The man who just walked in gently grabbed my hands. "Let's pray. Dear Lord, please protect this woman and her beautiful children as they drive north....I think you'll be OK."
Thunder struck again. This was loudest roar yet and the windows in the gas station shook and rattled.
We continued our drive north. Another service announcement came on. Tampa was getting hit hard by the tornado--actually now it sounded as if there were several tornadoes.
I called my husband and asked him to check the weather report online. The storm was headed south. Our best bet was to continue north.
Two hours later we reached Homosassa Springs State Park. The thunder storms continued so the park wasn't running it's usual boat tours but we were able to walk through the grounds with our umbrellas. We saw an alligator, stepped inside a center housings all sorts of snakes, and posed outside yet another manatee statue. But where were the manatees?
A small lake sits at the center of the grounds yet we couldn't see a thing.
My kids ran up to a ranger, "Where are the manatees"
"Come with me," she told them.
We walked over to small dock stretching into the lake. She grabbed a wheel barrow filled with lettuce and told the kids to throw it into the water.
A manatee that looked like a giant baked potato floated over to us. And then another and then another.
Here's a video showing these wonderfully unusual creatures feasting on lettuce.