Tornadoes Rip Through Florida, Georgia Towns

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.

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.


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."

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


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."

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


Photo by Mike O'Dowd
Cormorant Street


Dollar reported the tornado had not caused any fires but there were numerous gas leaks from ruptured mains and a lot of damaged wiring. Response time was hampered not only by downed power lines but also felled trees. The chief also noted the tornado created negative pressure, causing many structures to implode.

"The storm that hit us formed in Lake County, which is four miles to the west of Winter Garden," he said. "It came from the southwest and moved in a northeasterly direction. It was on the ground and when it lifted everything on the ground had been destroyed. Concrete block structures seemed to stand up best. We had many stores that were concrete block. Their roofs were blown off but the basic structure remained intact." The department also heard from a police officer whose vehicle had been lifted off the ground while he was in it.

"Our first report was from the Country Gardens Apartments and our engine was there while the rescue truck went to Hyde Park," Dollar continued. There are 23 buildings in Country Gardens, eight apartments to each building with an average of three people to each apartment. The buildings are all two-story, wood frame structures. The complex is also equipped with a residential sprinkler system, which meant that in addition to being roused out of bed by a tornado that caused a tremendous amount of damage the residents were soaked when the sprinkler system was set off.

"Out of 23 buildings we had eight to 10 that suffered heavy damage," Dollar said. "Three buildings had to be condemned. A systematic search was initiated after the impacted areas had been identified by our own firefighters, the police department and fire-rescue from the Ocoee Fire Department. A primary search was conducted on a home-by-home basis, which was sufficient. The residents of Country Gardens only received minor injuries.

Hyde Park is a large mobile home park less than a mile northeast of Country Gardens Apartments. Within its 50 acres are 385 units with an average of two people per trailer. Consistent with the capricious and deadly characteristics of tornadoes, only a few trailers were damaged. However, the 20 to 25 units that were hit were destroyed. And it was in Hyde Park that the fatalities occurred.

Photo by Michael Schwartzberg
The Winter Garden, FL, Fire Department's Engine 2 at the scene of the devastation in the Hyde Park Mobile Home Park.


Photo by Michael Schwartzberg
Emergency officials survey damage at Hyde Park Mobile Home Park in Winter Garden, FL.


"We were in action from 11:40 Sunday evening until dawn," the chief said. "At peak time, we had 14 people committed. (The department's rescue truck arrived at Hyde Park at 11:56 P.M., one minute after receiving the alarm.) By dawn, we had two residents of Hyde Park unaccounted for. The active searching stopped at dawn and we took care of the walking wounded, most of whom were suffering from lacerations and bruises.

"At dawn, we moved into the recovery phase. Heavy equipment was moved into the impacted areas, front-end loaders, back hoes and claw trucks. We moved the debris to the roadside where claw trucks could pick it up. This enabled us to get into back areas. The dogs, provided by the Orange County Sheriff's Department, went in at pre-dawn. They used tracking dogs for live people and cadaver dogs. We found one missing person (deceased) on Monday morning. We also had two other fatalities we were aware of. We also have some areas, woods and undeveloped property in close proximity to Hyde Park where homeless people camp. This area also had to be searched. By dusk on Monday, everyone was accounted for. We made a final search at dawn the next day and by mid-morning on Tuesday we were satisfied."

Although assisted by other agencies, the Winter Garden Fire Depart-ment responded to 30 calls. Canceled checks from the Hyde Park Mobile Home Park were found 30 miles away days later.

Midnight Storm

Most of the 36,000 citizens of Kissimmee, FL, were asleep as well when the twister struck. Located 20 miles southeast of Winter Garden, Kissimmee is mainly a suburban area. It is also the Osceola County seat. Its fire department, whose jurisdiction covers 16 square miles, numbers 70 in total, seven of whom are administrative. The other members work in three shifts of 21 people each.

"We got our first call at 0051 hours on February 23rd from a resident at 2504 Shelby Circle who reported that Lakeside Estates had been hit by a tornado," Service Chief Mike O'Dowd said.

The department had 19 people on duty at the time. The estates are a subdivision on the easternmost section of Kissimmee. The tornado was separate from the twister that had just finished devastating Winter Gardens. Its winds were reported to be between 210 and 220 mph.

"Engine 2 responded and proceeded east on Boggy Creek Road, a two-lane hardtop which crosses the Florida Turnpike," O'Dowd said. "When we got near the Ponderosa RV Park, which is under Osceola County jurisdiction, we saw a lot of trees and wires down. A convenience store was flattened as was an acupuncturist's. We stopped to assist an injured person before proceeding to our original call. We could see that the scope of the damage was large.

"Lakeside Estates is comprised of between 600 and 800 homes. They are site-built with concrete block walls and wood truss roofs. We knew that the victim potential was high."

A primary survey was made while ambulances were going in and out. Police were aiding 15 to 20 people who had been trapped in Rosie's Pub, located in a strip mall, when the roof collapsed. Battalion Chief Larry Whetsel ordered Stations 1 and 3 into action.

"At the Cypress Elementary School we set up a forward command post," O'Dowd said. "This was one of the lessons we learned from Hurricane Andrew. An evacuation center and triage center were also set up. We used school buses to transport the walking wounded. The school itself had been damaged. There were broken windows, water and roof damage, and there was no power. The utility people got a generator working so we could have some light.

"By 1:15 A.M., all on-duty assets had been committed and by 2 A.M. Chief Whetsel directed the recall of all off-duty assets. (This was in spite of communications difficulties.) We're on an 800 trunk radio system. We linked from our site in Kissimmee to Osceola. Our dispatcher was working off portable radios and lost the capability to recall off-duty personnel. He had to recall them from our emergency operations center."

He continued, "The first place we go for additional assistance is Osceola County. They were swamped and Orange County was dealing with Winter Garden. Fire Chief John Chapman requested mutual aid through the state warning point in Tallahassee and they initiated units from Brevard County."

Five engine and five rescue units arrived at 6:25 A.M. led by Division Chief Scott Lunden at the Cypress Elementary School.

"We worked all night under extremely adverse conditions.," O'Dowd said. "I'm very proud of the job the Kissimmee Fire Department did."

Did O'Dowd see anything unusual caused by the tornado?

"I was surprised to see that many garage doors were bowed out toward the front," he said. "The tornado had caused a vacuum. In other instances, some houses were leaning over. It all depended on the pressure and force of the winds."

There were other problems that had to be dealt with.

"We had some flat tires on emergency vehicles caused by blown debris," O'Dowd said. "Early use of street sweepers to remove debris from the roads reduced that problem. The city garage brought mechanics and all the tools necessary for changing tires and we set that up at the elementary school. The public works department also provided us with maps because street signs were down. This was another lesson we learned from Hurricane Andrew."

By using all assets at their disposal, unit strength, efficiency and morale were greatly increased. Each component such as maps, street sweepers and school buses added incrementally to the overall effectiveness of the Kissimmee Fire Department.

"The power to the whole area was down," O'Dowd continued. "Lakeside Estates was difficult to get to, not only because of the storm damage, but also because of the rescue operations that were taking place. Some people had emergency generators that they used. These generators can back feed into the power grid. Electricity runs both ways so there was a large potential for our people getting shocked.

Photo by Michael Schwartzberg
The Orange County, FL, Fire & Rescue mobile command/communications unit was set up as a command post for several days after a tornado struck a nearby shopping center parking lot.


Photo by Michael Schwartzberg
An Orange County chief calls for assistance from inside the mobile command post.


"At 6:45 A.M., we began a secondary search. By dawn, there were much fewer people in the evacuation shelter. All of the storm victims in our jurisdiction were accounted for by noon on Monday the 23rd. The secondary survey had been completed and we also kept a variety of emergency units available. The city enacted a dusk to dawn curfew. We were out there from 7:30 A.M. until 7:30 P.M. The detail was finally completed at 7:30 P.M. on February 28th."

There were three fatalities. Two people trapped in Rosie's Pub died from their injuries. A truck driver making a delivery to a supermarket was talking to his wife on a cellular phone. The driver's side window was down and the force of the tornado sucked him through the window and he died later as a result of his injuries.

Georgians Become Victims

Less than a month later, on March 20, at 6:30 A.M., the first day of spring, another killer tornado with sustained winds of 216 mph, tore through rural northeast Georgia.

The Hall County Fire Department is responsible for 115,000 citizens, most of whom were awake or at least beginning to stir, unlike their counterparts in Florida who were in bed. The county is 427 square miles and is both agricultural and residential. It is composed of several relatively small cities that have industrial and business corridors.

Gainesville, population 20,000, measures 30 square miles and is the county seat. The main occupation of its citizens is farming and it is also a bedroom community to Atlanta, 50 miles to the south. The department has a force of 149, of whom 11 are administrative. The three shifts are comprised of 46 firefighters.

Did Fire Chief Mike Satterfield have any warning of the approaching twister?

"None whatsoever," he replied. "There was a little line of thunderstorms coming through. None of the local television stations even mentioned them. We have one radar site for the entire state. It's about 100 miles from our area. We were hit cold." (A possible explanation for this might lie in the fact that the National Weather Service classified the funnel as a mid-grade tornado. As such it would presumably not warrant a warning or alert being issued. More consequential, the National Weather Service issued a statement in which it said that the storm did not appear on their radar screens.)

Forty-two firefighters were on duty at the time. "The other shift came on duty at 8 A.M., so we ended up with two shifts on duty," Satterfield said. "We had a total of 86 people. At 6:20 A.M., we received our first call. A sheriff's deputy directing traffic around a fallen tree had been killed. Station 3, made up of Engine 3 and Advanced Life Support 3, responded. While we were responding to that accident, we received our first call about the tornado's touchdown. The tornado proceeded in a northeasterly direction and traveled 101/2 nautical miles (it was tracked in a state patrol helicopter). The tornado's path was 100 to 200 yards wide. It would narrow to 100 yards and then spread out."

The first touchdown was at Lanier Elementary School at 6:30 A.M., he said. The winds pushed a refrigerated-produce truck across State Route 60, across the schoolyard and into the school itself. The school was heavily damaged. The tornado had also touched down at North High School at approximately 6:30 A.M.

Photo Courtesy Hall County Fire Department
Units from the Hall County, GA, Fire Department ran head-on into the March 20 tornado. A tree fell on Engine 2, crushing the cab and windshield. The driver was not injured.

"We set up our command post at North Hall High School and dispatched other units from there," Satterfield said. "We used it as a staging area and it was our resource pool. We also brought in a K-9 team from DeKalb County - both kinds of dogs, tracking and cadaver. A triage center was established in the gym. It was staffed by doctors, nurses, and other personnel from Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Most victims had lacerations, cuts, bruises, and head traumas."

The school as well as adjoining homes were hit, and many people were injured. The homes are site-built, concrete block with basements; some are custom built.

"We got other reports," the chief said "Engine 3 was responsible for the deputy who was redirecting traffic and Lanier Elementary School. Station 4 was now assigned to the deputy and Engine 3 was diverted to the elementary school. On our initial assignment we sent Station 2 (Engine 2, Tanker 2 and Med 2) to the elementary school. While enroute, we received calls that the tornado had touched down at the high school. Station 2 ran head-on into the tornado."

Tanker 2 was in the lead, followed by Engine 2 and Med 2. A falling tree landed on Engine 2, crushing the cab and windshield. The driver was OK but it took two hours to clear the road.

"The tanker made it through," Satterfield said, "but all my personnel were on Engine 2 and Med 2. By this time it was 6:40 A.M. The tornado had already hit two schools and about 40 homes. When it crossed the roads, it took down all the trees with it and blocked the roads, most of which are two-lane hardtops. We had to clear the way and the county and local power company also sent crews to help. The local citizens were also very helpful. They all have chain saws and they know how to use them. Adjoining counties also sent resources."

With power and telephone lines down, most of the calls for help were from callers using cellular phones. Underground telephone lines were rendered useless by collapsed homes.

"By the time we arrived at the school, many of the teachers were already there which enabled us to account for a lot of people," Satterfield said. "The mobile homes adjoining the school were destroyed and scattered throughout a wooded area. At that location we found four fatalities. We also transported another person who later died. All of the fatalities occurred at mobile homes. Brick homes withstood the storm better. That afternoon, another victim was found under the flooring of a mobile home. We had nine meds dispatched to the general area of the high school. We received more calls from the vicinity of Clermont."

The tornado had also touched down at the edge of Clermont, an unincorporated part of Hall County where about 200 people live.

"At 6:45 A.M., all of our assets were committed," the chief said. "Two pumpers were held in reserve. We needed more medical transport units than fire units. We transported 12 times with our own units and approximately five times with mutual aid companies. We had a total of 11 fatalities and 140 injuries of different types. By 7 A.M., the tornado was out of our jurisdiction. Then we dealt with the aftermath."

The department received reports of missing persons and had to search each damaged structure. About 100 single-family homes sustained severe roof damage. Some homes were sheared off at their foundations. Mobile homes were flattened or collapsed.

"By 10 A.M., the search and verification by relative or neighbor was complete," Satterfield said. "We had reports of three missing people. They turned out to be fatalities. By 3 P.M., we had everyone accounted for. We stood by at the CP (command post) in a lesser role. Our units there were used to assist the cleanup crews. Also present were the National Guard, state troopers, Department of Natural Resources officers and State Department of Transportation officers. Just as it began to get dark at around 6:30 to 7 P.M., the power was restored to our CP at the high school. We kept an engine and ambulance at the CP for an extra night until 1800 hours on Saturday. We contacted our local communications provider and they installed temporary base radio units with exterior antennas at the CP. We then brought in dispatchers to staff those radios."

Satterfield said his crews had been exposed to earlier tornadoes and knew what to expect.

"The overwhelming part of this emergency was the size of the tornado and the distance it covered," he said. "We literally had 70 homes destroyed in a 15-minute period. Most people said that in 30 to 45 seconds it was all over. We also had to deal with between 11 and 12 flat tires our vehicles got."

Damage from the tornado was put at $13 million to $15 million.

Lessons Learned From Hurricane Andrew Were Applied to Kissimmee's Tornado Response

  1. A forward command post was established at Cypress Elementary School for the many agencies - city police and fire, public works, Red Cross, etc. - that responded to Lakeside. The school was also used as an evacuation shelter and first aid triage/treatment center.
  2. A city public works street sweeper swept the streets in the areas of operation to pick up nails and other debris that would cause flat tires on emergency vehicles.
  3. The city garage set up a tire-changing area at Cypress Elementary School to minimize downtime for any vehicle that did get a flat tire.
  4. Rescue personnel were cautioned as to the hazards presented by small portable generators powering individual homes. The electricity could back-feed into the power grid and injure rescuers working at other locations.
  5. Because the primary radio system was disabled by the storm, cellular phones were used for alternate communications, but the cellular system was soon overloaded.

-Kissimmee Fire Department

Michael Garlock is a Florida- and New York-based freelance writer specializing in fire service response to major storms.