PENSACOLA, Florida (GNS) -- A tornado swept through the heart of Pensacola today, damaging the city's major shopping mall, a day-care center and a church as a line of violent thunderstorms made their way across the western Panhandle.
Eddie English Jr., a department store stock manager at Cordova Mall, said he heard the wind outside the store suddenly speed up and get louder. Mall security guards then entered the store and ordered about 200 to 300 employees and shoppers into the basement.
Lindsey Lassiter, manager of the mall's Express for Men store, said the ceiling in her store was damaged and that water was pouring in.
Escambia County sheriff's spokesman Glenn Austin said Greater Little Rock Baptist Church's roof was damaged, as was its day-care center. But the children there had been moved to safety before the tornado struck, he said.
"They heard the warnings, grabbed the kids and followed the drill," he said.
Near the church, Leeann Franzonne said she and her 3-year-old son, Gabriel, stood on their porch and watched as the tornado formed and dipped into the nearby trees. They took shelter inside when the tornado approached.
"It sounded creepy, like a bunch of cars were driving over my house," Franzonne said about an hour later as emergency crews directed traffic through her neighborhood and worked to restore power. A section of twisted metal from the church hung over a power line in the Franzonne's yard.
Jack Cullen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mobile, confirmed that a tornado touched down shortly before 11 a.m.
There have been no immediate reports of deaths, but some area residents were injured.
Four people are being treated for storm-related injuries at Baptist Hospital, said public relations specialist Ashley Hodge. Though the patients are still being evaluated, the injuries are not critical, Hodge said. Three of those being treated are from a house that collapsed; one is a pregnant woman who was hit by debris.
Gulf Power Co. spokesman John Hutchinson said about 5,100 customers were without power as a result of the storms.
Along with the damaging winds, more than 5 inches of rain have been reported at Pensacola Regional Airport since midnight Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.
There is a report that part of the roof of a portable classroom at Hallmark Elementary has been torn off, though no students were in the area at the time.
GULF BREEZE HIGH
Rain has caused flooding in four classrooms and some leaks in the roof
at Gulf Breeze High School.
“We had to move some students in outside classrooms to the media center
and cafeteria,” said Principal Sylvan Ladner. “The holding pond filled
up and water backed up into areas where it could not drain.”
About 100 students in a home economics, social studies and business
classes have been moved.
“They will probably be back in those classrooms this afternoon,” Ladner
said. “We have started extracting the water.”
Ladner said the roof leaks are primarily in the hallways, resource room
and the gym/lobby area.
No other Santa Rosa school has reported damage so far, said Frank
Melvin, the district’s supervisor of building maintenance.
Virginia College has cancelled classes for the rest of day. Classes will resume Friday.
NINE MILE ROAD AREA
All schools south of Nine Mile Road are cleared to resume their regular schedule. Schools north of Nine Mile are still in safety mode as officials keep an eye on a cell of disturbed weather between Beulah and Muscogee.
Tonight's volleyball between Tate and Catholic high schools, Aggies athletic director Dale Gilmore said. With districts next week, the game will not be made up, he said.
The Warrington Volunteer Fire Department has begun a house-to-house search urging residents to leave voluntarily.
More storms are predicted for this afternoon.
Gulf Power reports 5,174 customers without power in the area of A and Cervantes streets.
Tree limbs falling on electrical wires have ignited a fire at D and LaRua streets in Pensacola.
There were no injuries.
Pensacola firefighters are at the scene.
The local chapter of the American Red Cross is on standby.
No shelters are open but officials said they would open shelters in an emergency.
Portions of Cordova Mall are closed because of roof damage.
An employee at Master Cuts in the mall said several skylights were blown in during the storm.
The area in under an urban flood warning.
Also flooding has been reported throughout the area, specifically along Interstate I-110. Traffic northbound was backed up until Fairfield because of flooding and dirt run-off.
There has been a reported 6-inches of rain in the Gulf Breeze area this morning.
Cox Communication technicians are out assessing damage from this morning's storms.
Most problems are from downed service lines and should be repaired quickly, said Cox Communications technician Ron Gee.
"We've got everyone out to asses the damage," he said. "Then we'll get right on it."
(The Associated Press & The Pensacola News Journal contributed to this report.)