February 2, 1998: South Florida
Blue line indicates the path of the chase through South Central and South Florida, beginning in West Palm at noon and terminating at 9:00 PM in Ft. Lauderdale. Courtesy of Weathervine Online.
|Web Posted 2:00 AM February 4,
by Amos A. Magliocco
An area of low
pressure gathered strength in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday February 1 and tracked slowly
toward the Florida Big Bend area. In response to the approaching low, a warm front
lifted from Cuba and was forecast to slide over the southern third of the state.
Strong wind fields were expected, including a 60-70 kt wind field at the 850 mb
level. Surface winds blew 20-25 kts from the Southeast, carrying with them the
moisture and warmth that would be so critical in what looked to be, as one veteran chaser
described, "one of the biggest South Florida severe weather events in
years." Winds aloft were also strong, and the combination of factors caused
helicity values that were, as one state forecast discussion termed, "ridiculously
high." A cold pocket soothed fears of a lack of instability from what would
surely be total cloud cover, and the combination of wind fields, and the potential
intersection of the northbound warm front and the eastbound squall line coming ashore from
the Gulf had all weather enthusiasts in the state very excited.
It looked as if isolated supercells would form out ahead of the squall line, as the excellent shear would twist any sustained updraft. It became clear by early Monday morning that this would be a two part show: potentially isolated convection ahead of the squall line which could fire across the South Central parts of the state, and then the later intersection of the squall line and the warm front farther south. With so much being made of local enhancements lately, and having learned the particular importance of subtle boundaries here in Florida, it was a tough decision about which drama to attend on Monday. Luckily, the two upcoming engagements were not mutually exclusive.
|I expected a Tornado
Watch to be issued early in the day, and arranged to leave work at noon. Many of my
chases in Florida have been half-hearted popcorn storm pursuits, and my preparation was
less than Alley-worthy. Today was different: plenty of film, batteries, plenty of
good maps and a solid forecast which led me to believe that Northern Glades/Southern
Highlands county (see map just west of Lake Ok) would see the best storms. Target
destinations for storm chases here are influenced almost as much by the road network as
the atmosphere. It is a narrow peninsula.
I left Ft. Lauderdale at 10:45 AM and drove north on the Florida Turnpike with SE winds at 25-30 knots. At this time, a large area of convection boiled off the Florida west coast with embedded thunderstorms. In West Palm Beach, my chase partner Jeff Gammons joined me and we drove west on State Road 80, towards our first target: central Glades county. At 1:05 PM we were still westbound on 80/27 and saw vertical development on the frequent cumulus. The sun shone through in spots, but the clouds were thickening by the minute, as was our mood.
In Clewiston, we stopped at the McDonald's drive-thru at 1:31 when the town sirens sounded. There were no storms in sight, but this apparent test of the village's emergency systems makes for interesting background noise on the mini-recorder tape that I use to document the chase, as I calmly announce Big Macs and tornado sirens. Among the more bizarre parts of the day, this incident ranks with the frequent sighting of the South Florida State Fair trucks: seemingly everywhere we went all day, we were never far from a convoy of trucks carrying carnival rides and equipment. This oversized colorful cargo seemed to us a likely potential victim of the strong winds which grew more forceful as the afternoon wore on.
As we finished our burgers, the Storm Prediction Center issued the first Tornado Watch of the day, including in the watch area almost every county in the southern third of the state. More important to us than the counties listed in the watch was the language: "a particularly dangerous situation...very damaging tornadoes." This aggressive wording is rare for Florida, and we fled Clewiston and got back on the road.
At 2:05, we were northbound on 27 and winds increased. The cloud cover was almost complete now. On our way to Palmdale, we saw an opportunity to gain a more favorable road network just west of out initial target zone, in the city of Arcadia. We headed west on State Road 70 and light rain began to fall. We stopped at 3:24 and waited just east of Arcadia in Desoto County, parking near the entrance of the Blue Head Ranch (where no trespassing is allowed). We parked in a circular driveway off the road and faced the Southwest. A school bus (without children) turned quickly into the drive and failed to judge the circumference of the small semi-circular paved road. The bus went into the mud beside the gravel roadway, and was stuck. The driver immediately radioed for help and within minutes, a large tractor came and yanked her and the bus free. No one ever asked us why we were parked there, smoking cigarettes in the rain.
After waiting some time, we decided the best chance to see storms was to intercept the first cells of the squall line, coming ashore near Ft. Myers, south of our location. So, we headed south on 27 and then on 29 and made good time towards Lee County. At 4:41, we saw our first lightning bolt, which was quite encouraging. The rain was still light and the wind blew strong from the southeast still. At 5:03, NOAA weather radio reported a severe thunderstorm warning in Collier county, south of our destination. At 5:17, the sun crept toward the horizon.
For the next two hours, we became more discouraged by the lack of any organization in the convection around us, and, at 7:00 PM we reached the intersection of 29 and US Interstate 75, and turned back towards the eastern part of the state. This was certainly the low point of the chase. We had expected to see something in the central sections of Hendry and Collier county, and were even in that county when a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for Collier, but this cell had moved on by the time the warning was aired on the NOAA repeater out of Ft. Myers. We saw no evidence of it. Friends back in Ft. Lauderdale gave information about the cells in the extreme southern tip of the state, but we considered that territory, especially at night, to be un-chaseable. Moving east across the Everglades towards home, I thought the chase was coming to an end, and reflected on what seemed destined to be a huge disappointment.
I was wrong.
At 7:38 PM at mile marker 38 on I-75 moving eastbound
we moved into an area of heavy rain and saw frequent cloud to cloud and cloud to ground
lightning, mostly to our north, with occasional flashes to the south and
southeast. Moments later, the familiar voice of Miami NOAA weather radio made a
joyful noise with news of an extension of the Tornado Watch! We had discussed if the
watch might be cancelled early just before this announcement that lifted our spirits and
our speed. The strong wording remained.
I will try to amend and edit this report later, changing and/or adding details as damage surveys are published and other items of interest come to light. Thanks as always to my chase partner here in sunny South Florida, Jeff Gammons, and to Clete Estes for radar updates from the homebase.