Deadly Twisters in Florida

In the early-morning hours of Feb. 2, 2007, a series of deadly tornadoes rated at EF-3 on the enhanced Fujita scale tore across central Florida with wind speeds estimated at between 136 mph and 165 mph. In their aftermath, the twisters and thunderstorms that accompanied them left 20 people dead, thousands of residents without power and preliminary damage estimates at $80 million.

It was the second-deadliest outbreak of tornadoes in Florida's history, surpassing a 1962 tornado that killed 17 people in the Panhandle. The worst tornadic catastrophe in the state occurred in 1998, when the infamous "Groundhog Day Storm" of five tornadoes and associated storms killed 42 people near Orlando over a period of two days.

Although Florida may be most associated with hurricanes, tornadoes are not uncommon. When the jet steam digs south into Florida and is accompanied by a strong cold front and a strong squall line of thunderstorms, the jet stream's high winds of 100 mph to 200 mph often strengthen a thunderstorm into what is called a supercell that produces high winds, hail and tornadoes. Tornadoes are just as likely to strike at midnight as they are in the afternoon and that is precisely what happened on Feb. 2. Moreover, the deleterious effects of El Nino often add to the combustibility of an already-volatile weather environment and further subjects a general populace that is ill-equipped and unprepared to deal with catastrophic tornadic activity to additional physical and emotional trauma.

A supercell thunderstorm moved east by northeast at 50 mph to 60 mph along a 75-plus-mile track from Sumter County to offshore Volusia County and produced three tornadoes. The first two tornadoes were extremely violent and were responsible for 20 fatalities. The third tornado was not as strong, but still resulted in significant property damage. Lake, Seminole, Sumter and Volusia counties were declared to be in a state of emergency by Governor Charlie Crist.

According to the National Weather Service in Melbourne, Tornado Number One was classified as a high-end EF-3 with winds of 155 mph to 160 mph. It initially touched down at 3:08 A.M. in Sumter County near Wildwood and The Villages and then crossed into Lake County and struck the town of Lady Lake at 3:20 A.M. The twister caused damage to structures where most walls collapsed except for their interior rooms. Large trees were debarked with only the stubs of the largest branches remaining. Mobile homes were destroyed, 100 residences were damaged and 36 were destroyed. The tornado lifted at 3:25 A.M. east of Lady Lake, resulting in a path length of 16½ miles. The tornado was one-quarter-mile wide during its maximum extent. Seven fatalities were associated with this tornado.

Tornado Number Two was also classified as a high-end EF-3 with winds of 160 mph to 165 mph (about 30 mph stronger than Hurricane Katrina). The tornado touched down at 3:37 A.M. east of Highway 439 and west of Lake Norris in rural Lake County and reached Lake Mack at 3:48 with peak winds near 165 mph, resulting in 10 fatalities. Complete destruction of mobile homes occurred and large trees were debarked. Seventy-three residences were damaged and 33 were destroyed.

The tornado then reached Forest Drive and State Road 44 with winds of 150 mph to 155 mph, resulting in three additional fatalities. The twister crossed from Lake County to Volusia County near Hontoon Island and struck DeLand at 4:02 A.M. as an EF-3 tornado with winds near 150 mph. The tornado lifted at 4:10 A.M near the Volusia County Fairgrounds east of Interstate 4. Over 250 mobile homes and 27 single-family dwellings were destroyed in DeLand and unincorporated West Volusia County. The path length was 26 miles. The tornado's maximum width was one-third of a mile. A total of 13 fatalities occurred with this tornado.

Tornado Number Three was classified as an EF-1 with winds of 100 mph to 105 mph. The tornado touched down east of Interstate 95 and north of Highway 44 in New Smyrna Beach at 4:22 A.M and lifted near the intracoastal waterway east of Ponce Inlet at 4:25 AM. The tornado uplifted roofs on many structures, causing significant loss of roofing materials, collapse of chimneys, and collapse of garage doors. Twenty-five single-family homes were destroyed in New Smyrna Beach and unincorporated southeast Volusia County. The path length was about three miles and the maximum length was one-eighth of a mile.

Unlike other parts of the country where sirens are used with great effectiveness, warning sirens for tornadoes are almost nonexistent in Central Florida. Volusia County Emergency Management Office spokeswoman Holly Smith said warning sirens will not work in Volusia County because the area is too large. Instead, authorities work closely with local media to warn the public of impending disasters. Lake County spokesman Christopher Patton said that they wouldn't be worthless, but there has to be some kind of threshold on whether to sound them. Meteorologist Dave Sharp of the National Weather Service in Melbourne said tornado watches had been posted hours before the twisters struck and between eight and 15 minutes before they touched down.

It is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of the affected populace was asleep when the watches and warnings were issued. Except for the rapidly approaching freight train sound typically associated with incoming tornadoes, residents of the affected areas had no warning at all that a major tornado was bearing down on them. Survivors reported having eight to 10 seconds to wake up and seek shelter in interior rooms. Immediately after the tornadoes struck, 44,000 people were without power, according to Progress Energy Florida, which serves 1.7 million customers.

The Villages is one of the nation's largest retirement communities. It sprawls across parts of three counties, borders Lady Lake and is 30 miles west of Lake Mack. Nearly 1,200 homes were destroyed in The Villages. Lady Lake, about 50 miles northwest of Orlando has a population of 13,000. Lake Mack borders the Ocala National Forest and about 200 people live around the lake that gives the community its name. The 13 fatalities that occurred in Lake Mack were within a one-square-mile area.

The twisters hopscotched across the state, randomly flattening some areas while leaving others unscathed. Although many of the destroyed structures were mobile homes, more substantial and costlier homes were also destroyed or damaged. A county medical clinic in DeLand was also severely damaged. Dozens of people were treated at local hospitals for lacerations, broken limbs and other injuries.

The 176-member Lady Lake Fire Department serves the unincorporated area of Lake County. Deputy Chief John Jolliss said that the first call came in at around 3:15 A.M. The department responded with four engines and two Special Operations trucks. Six fire stations answered the call.

"We don't have sirens in our area," Jolliss said. "We're trying to promote the increased use of all-hazard weather radios. Seminole County recently tested a siren, but from what I understand nobody heard it. When the first calls came in, they related to people being trapped and very heavy weather conditions. There were two separate incidents, the one here and the one in Lake Mack. There was about a 30- to 40-minute time span between the two incidents."

Jolliss continued, "We respond to hurricanes, we even sent guys out of state to Mississippi, but this was the worst disaster in county history. We also had a tornado on last Christmas day. It hit in Leesburg and headed north to Daytona Beach, so within a 30-day span we had two tornadoes. We prepare for microbursts. On Christmas day, the weather conditions were the same as they were with the most recent tornado. It was hot and humid.

"We had a normal dispatch for the units. I contacted two or three other counties to fill needs. Our communications tower got nailed. We had no radio or cell phone communications, but by that time our response was in place. By 8 A.M., we knew what we had. We had two incident commanders at either end and tried to get resources to them. The mutual aid worked very well and the state emergency response also worked very well. Everything was managed well. I had more help than I needed.

"In The Villages, a non-profit ambulance service removed the victims. We had an overabundance of ambulances. A portion of The Villages that was hit was in Sumter County. The victims were trapped under debris. All of the victims lived in older, 1970s trailers. Our guys did well. We got help fast and utilized it fast because of the incident command system that is in place. Only about 2,000 people out of the total county population were affected. Most people didn't know about the tornado until they heard it on the news the following morning or read about it in the newspapers. I was proud of the city and county. It's hard to be disciplined in this kind of situation. All of our guys want to help.

"As for lessons learned, our communications need improving. We need a new 800 system with more towers and as I said before, we're looking into ways to use more all-hazard radios and to put them into the hands of the general public."

Ocala Fire Rescue also responded with a Special Operations truck under the command of Chief Nicholas Devita.

"We got the call at 5:20 A.M. and arrived at The Villages just before daybreak," Devita said. "There were no fatalities (in our area). We bandaged people, put stitches in some of them and pulled glass out of people. In our area, 35 homes were destroyed, 20 received moderate to medium damage, and another 100 had tiles and shingles blown off their roofs. Cars were thrown all over the place. Our search went well and the primary search went well too. We were there all day and cleared at 5 P.M."

Lake County Fire Rescue covers the unincorporated area of Lake County, including Paisley. The county has a population of 210,528 and it measures 1,156 square miles, of which 953 square miles consist of land and 203 square miles are water. The fire department has 153 firefighters (including lieutenants), three battalion chiefs, one operations chief, one chief and four lieutenants-in-training. There are 16 paid stations with 14 tankers, 18 brush trucks and three Special Operations Squads.

"The first call came in at 3:15 A.M.," Lake County Battalion Chief Eric Palmer said. "Lady Lake initially responded with Engine 52 and Engine 53. Lake Mack responded with Engine 15. At approximately 3:30 A.M., Squad 76 and 77 responded along with Squad 52, which includes a modified pumper, hazmat and Special Collapse. We realized what was going on at 4:30 A.M. The initial calls were for trees down. We initiated an emergency callback of shifts. Our shifts start at 8 A.M. and we got those guys to come in early. Lady Lake responded with AOS Truck 82, Squad 76, Brush 72, Battalion 72 and Battalion 71. Lake Mack responded with Engine 15, Brush 15, Engine 14, Tanker 15, Battalion 27 and Chief 11. Lake Mack responded with Squad 76 and Utility 76."

Asked whether the department is prepared specifically for tornadoes, he said, "We have no sirens in our area. Tornadoes cover a small geographic area; hurricanes obviously cover a much larger geographic area. We have found that our hurricane training also works for tornadoes."

Palmer continued, "The first few hours were very chaotic. The Lady Lake area was relatively confined while the Lake Mack area was more spread out. Access at first was limited to EMS personnel. The walking wounded were evacuated first, followed by those people who needed more assistance. We secured the area and after we did that Special Operations cleaned out homes.

"Between 2 P.M. and 3 P.M. the following day, we went into recovery mode. Victims were located and gas leaks were secured. Most victims were found in or near their homes. For those victims in their homes, death was caused by falling debris; for those outside their homes, death was caused by falling debris or blunt force. Only two victims were found any significant distance from their homes. Most of the victims were found in mobile homes. All entrapped patients were found and rescued early on. Hours later, we did rescue a small dog that was uncovered in a collapse search of a mobile home. The dog's owner had perished. Lady Lake used cadaver dogs. Emergency Management came in with utility vehicles and personnel and they also used private contractors.

"Lady Lake was assisted by fire departments from Mount Dora and Leesburg Fire Rescue. Lake Mack was assisted by the Winter Park Fire Department. The incident commanders were Chief Luce of Lady Lake and Chief Dickerson in Lake Mack. Jerry Smith, director of Emergency Management, coordinated sheltering and food.

Palmer added, "In terms of lessons learned, we're going to be looking at better notification of off-duty personnel. The County Commission will be looking into the feasibility of installing sirens in our area and also the use of weather radios by the public. We used weather radios and they worked very well. Although initially it was very chaotic, our hurricane training kicked in very quickly. Fire departments, the Sheriff's Department and EMS all worked very well together."

About 40 National Guard members distributed blankets, food and water. Marion County sent a group of low-risk inmates, dressed in green-and-white-striped jail clothes, to help with the cleanup.

After the tornado hit DeLand, Fire Chief Patrick Kelly was called at home at 3:50 A.M.

"We have no sirens here," Kelly said. "Tornadoes are a once-in-40-year occurrence and we don't prepare for them. Tornadoes are associated with hurricanes and those we obviously prepare for.

The fire department protects 18 square miles. Volusia County has five stations that surround DeLand and an additional 15 stations in the unincorporated part of the county. The DeLand department has 35 firefighters on-line and 42 off-line.

"All stations were alerted," Kelly said. "We sent two engines and a ladder. The county sent five engines. At 4 A.M., we established incident command at a shopping center. There was rain, lightning, no power and it was pitch black. We got reports that buildings and houses were down. As the reports came in, we expanded the incident command. We get automatic aid. Technical Rescue units were sent by the county, Seminole County and the city of Deltona.

"One of the most important lessons we learned was that the incident command worked. However, we also found that people (the public) expect us to do things immediately. They don't realize that sometimes it takes hours to set things up. It took us three to four hours to get teams to go door to door. It is very important to get your hands around the situation (and respond accordingly). The city is talking about getting weather radios. We might be able to get some grants so those people who can't afford to buy the radios can have them."

Sirens are another issue. Installation, maintenance and replacement costs are high. Because they would be used so infrequently, the expense is difficult if not impossible for county commissioners to justify.

"We had no life-threatening injuries or fatalities," Kelly said. "The 55-plus (resident age) mobile home where most of the property destruction occurred is an old one. The homes didn't have any tie-downs. None of the mobile homes were left on their foundations and some were blown a quarter of a mile away." The chief could not account for the fact that none of the residents of the mobile home park were killed.

The New Smyrna Beach Fire Department serves 36 square miles with a population of 22,000. The department has 45 firefighters plus five staff members and is equipped with a tower, TeleSqurt, five pumpers and a rescue truck.

"We got the initial call at 4 A.M. and responded with four engines," New Smyrna Beach Fire Chief Tim Hawver said. "Engines also came from Port Orange and Edgewater. Mutual aid is built into the CAD (computer-aided dispatch) system. It's automatic aid. When we arrived on the scene, we saw power lines down and houses had received varying degrees of damage. We set up a grid and commenced search and rescue operations. We established a command post and cleared each area. There were no serious injuries. We don't have sirens in our area, but we recommend that people use weather radios. We have them and they went off when the National Weather Service issued the warning."

Hawver continued, "We don't prepare for tornadoes per se. We get hurricanes in this area. We know how to handle bad weather. We also do multi-agency training. Our crews know exactly what to do. We had a tornado that came through here not too long ago that was worse than this one. Our procedures are automatic. A second alarm is called in, dispatch notifies people and gets the ball rolling. FEMA (Federal Emergency management Agency) was here immediately and did a great job feeding people and helping them in general. In terms of lessons learned, we need to be prepared, plans have to be in place, our people have to know what to do in order to help the civilian population. That's exactly what they did."

Lastly, a group of 17 endangered, Calgary, Alberta-bred whooping cranes were also unfortunate victims of the tornadoes. Only one member of the group survived. The migratory flock was led south from Wisconsin last fall by an ultralight aircraft that is used to teach new groups of cranes the migration route to Florida. From then on, the birds migrate north in the spring and south in the fall on their own.

The birds were kept in an enclosure at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge near Crystal River when violent thunderstorms moved in. Joe Duff, co-founder of Operation Migration, speculated that a strong storm surge drew the tide in and overwhelmed the birds. While not immediately known, the cause of death was probably drowning.

On Feb. 4, project biologists picked up the radio signal of crane 15-06 and tracked the young bird to an area in Citrus County some miles from the pen site. The surviving member of the flock was observed from the air in a remote habitat with two sandhill cranes and was subsequently rescued and returned to the wildlife refuge.

MICHAEL GARLOCK is a Florida- and New York-based writer specializing in fire service responses to major incidents.