Tornadoes Rip Through Florida, Georgia Towns

Michael Garlock surveys the damage left after tornadoes leveled entire communities in Florida and Georgia, in some cases with little warning to residents and responders.


It took only a little over an hour for a series of tornadoes to devastate central Florida during the remaining minutes of Feb. 22 and the first hour of Feb. 23, 1998. Spawned by thunderstorms that formed in the Tampa Bay area after an active period of storms, the tornadoes cut across central Florida...


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It took only a little over an hour for a series of tornadoes to devastate central Florida during the remaining minutes of Feb. 22 and the first hour of Feb. 23, 1998. Spawned by thunderstorms that formed in the Tampa Bay area after an active period of storms, the tornadoes cut across central Florida in swaths about 50 miles wide, leaving behind patches of random and seemingly capricious destruction.

The tornadoes caused damage worthy of categories F3 and F4 on the 0-5 Fujita scale of intensity, with winds measured at 158 to 260 mph - the deadliest in Florida since the National Weather Service started keeping records 50 years ago. In addition, they were the most lethal storms since 1992, when Hurricane Andrew battered the state (see related story on page 81). Damage was estimated at more than $100 million. Forty-one people were killed and more than 260 injured.

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Photo by Mike O'Dowd
A tornado in Kissimmee, FL, left a car propped up on its nose inside a garage in the Flamingo Lakes subdivision.

 


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Photo by Mike O'Dowd
A view of the damage to a residential neighborhood in Kissimmee, FL.

 

Late-Night Twister

The Winter Garden Fire Department is responsible for 12,800 people living within the city limits. Its jurisdiction, including county enclaves, covers 10 square miles. The department consists of 17 people. Two are administrative and the remaining 15 are firefighters who work in three shifts.

More suburban than rural, Winter Garden is primarily residential. A bedroom community to Orlando, many residents work at theme parks and hotels. Winter Garden's principal thoroughfare is four-lane State Road 50 that runs east to west. Satellite roads include State Road 545, a two-lane highway that runs north to south; four-lane Dillard Street running north to south through a business district; and Story Road, a two-lane road that runs east to west through a residential area. All of these streets were impassible in places due to downed power lines and trees, forcing department vehicles to make time-consuming zigzags.

Winter Garden was hit by a tornado classified as F4 at approximately 11:50 P.M. on Feb. 22. Asked how many people were on duty when the tornado struck, Fire Chief Randy Dollar replied, "We had five on duty - three on the pumper, two on rescue."

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Photo by Mike O'Dowd
A damaged dwelling in Kissimmee's Flamingo Lakes subdivision.

 


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Photo by Mike O'Dowd
A tornado upended this van, which had been parked outside a Flamingo Lakes home.

 

Was there any advance warnings of the approaching tornado? "We had a tornado watch. Volusia and Brevard (counties) had a warning. At the time, there was nothing in our particular area. A lot of people were unaware of the potential. The warning came after people were in bed."

Radar screens can track a thunderstorm's path with great accuracy. However, radar cannot show exactly when, where or even if a tornado will touch down. A tornado watch indicates that tornadoes are in the immediate vicinity. A tornado warning (the most serious) means that a tornado sighting has been confirmed. A warning can and often does literally come within minutes prior to a touchdown.

One problem specific to Florida is that its high water table precludes the building of basements. Another mitigating factor is that because tornadoes have been historically short-lived and relatively weak, many communities have felt the need to justify financing more elaborate and expensive warning systems such as loudspeakers and sirens that are commonly used throughout many states in the Midwest.

Orange County Emergency Services reported 111 buildings were destroyed, 87 others sustained major damage and 147 received minor damage.

"We were initially dispatched at 11:45 P.M.," Dollar said. "Most of the area impacted was residential. We carried airbags and hydraulic lifts. The Hyde Park Mobile Home Park to the east is an older residential area. The homes are wood-frame, single-family. We tunneled in, moving debris by hand. We used shoring and cribbing to stabilize the debris."

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Photo by Mike O'Dowd
A panoramic view of both sides of Cormorant Street in the Kissimmee subdivision of Flamingo Lakes.

 


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Photo by Mike O'Dowd
Cormorant Street

 

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