February 2, 1998: South Florida

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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, 1998.
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.
     As late as Sunday night, variations in model projections of the path of the low made prediction of the all-important warm front's movement and speed very difficult.

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.
    At 7:53, the Miami NOAA broadcast a Tornado Warning without the tones, discussing a cell they had seen on radar 20 minutes earlier!  This warning, officially released at 7:34, described a tornadic cell moving through populated areas of Dade County.  How this was broadcast without a tone, and why it took almost 20 full minutes to put on the air are interesting questions.  Anyone with a reasonable answer is certainly invited to e-mail me.
    Soon we were in Central Broward County, approaching my home, which is a convenient and quick stop off Alligator Alley in Weston, Florida.  We stopped at my house at approximately 8:10 and checked The Weather Channel radar.  Our eyes nearly popped out of our heads at the large mass of storms moving through Northern Dade County on a collision course with Southern Broward County and, eventually, Ft. Lauderdale.  Thinking this would surely cause a Skywarn Net to go up, and not wanting to give up just yet, we jumped back in the truck and headed east on I-595, towards Ft. Lauderdale, on a path to come in just behind the storm.
    Racing east, we listened to the Broward County repeater, where no Skywarn net had been called, despite tornadic cells moving into the area at high speeds.   To their credit, several amateur radio operators proposed calling a Skywarn net, but, in the words of one of the potential net controllers which I will never forget: "I don't see any reason to."  As we approached Ft. Lauderdale, winds picked up substantially, and the rain was very heavy.  My Cherokee became difficult to steer against the gusts, and the highway was more elevated as we moved closer to the city.  We met the storm at Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport.
    I assumed that we would be behind the storm, since its movement was reported NE at 25 to 30 MPH.  Coming in from the west I thought we would pop in just behind it, and trail it northbound.  Instead, we made a perfect interception at the airport.  My chase partner pointed out a large passenger plane aborting a landing at about 300 feet.   The plane pulled up and headed back into the storm.  Seconds later, a series of power flashes lit the interior of the rain core like a neon blue strobe light.  I reported the flashes on the repeater, and was asked if I thought the weather service should be called.   Before I could answer, the tones sounded on the mobile scanner, as Miami NWS issued a Tornado Warning for Eastern Broward County at 8:29 PM.  The path of the reported tornado was very close to where I noted power flashes.
    Now the wind suddenly became fierce, and the truck was difficult to control. The rain blinded us and I took the first available exit to get down from our elevated position on I-595.  The exit I chose took us into the Ft Lauderdale airport grounds, where we discovered there was no electricity, and thus, no lights.  With almost no visibility whatsoever, and palm trees bending over as if in a large hurricane, we hunted shelter.  There was no use in looking for signs, and I thought of just how unpleasant it would be in that ditch on the side of the road.   The tornado was in the neighborhood, and there wasn't going to be any spotting of anything.  Driving in what seemed endless circles, we finally found an underpass, and drove underneath to take some video footage of the madness.  Within 10 minutes, the powerful winds slowed, and the rain lightened.  We sped out from under our hiding place, and tried in the relative darkness to find the on-ramp for I-95, to continue the chase.  As the storm moved to exit Broward county, the Miami NWS formally requested a Skywarn net be called in the county, and the amateur radio powers-that-be relented, and the net went up a day late and a dollar short.  There was sort of an informal net before this, however, with a lively debate on the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.
    Back on 95 on moving north, we followed the storm up the coast.  A spotter reported a waterspout forming near A1A and "the firehouse," which my chase partner said was south of where we were, and so we exited the Interstate and headed towards the coast.  Traffic here was heavy, and the failure of several of the traffic lights slowed our progress eastbound on Oakland Park Blvd.  Emerging out onto A1A (the coastal road), we turned to the north again, probably 10-15 minutes behind the storm, and began to appreciate the damage that the winds were inflicting.
    Among other items, we saw several trees downed and a tin roof that had been blown off a structure lay across the center of the northbound lane.  More than half of the condominium buildings on either side were without power, and, at this point, we heard that the Miami 911 service was down along with tens of thousands of residents without power.  That number would grow as high as 250,000, according to local media later.  It soon was apparent that the storm was gone, sailing away over the Atlantic Ocean.  Our progress became very measured as we took stock of the damage and debris still fresh before us. 
    This morning, damage reports came pouring in from across both Dade and Broward counties.  Items of interest:

  • A huge crane atop a Miami Beach hotel tumbled onto Collins Avenue
  • Miami airport was shut down for nearly one hour, and an unoccupied DC-8 blew onto the taxiway, tearing a fence
  • Traffic lights in Key West were stripped from their poles, and a state of emergency was declared in Keys as the entire island string was without power
  • At Perry Airport, a private facility near Ft. Lauderdale, several planes were overturned from an apparent tornado ( I think many of the tornadoes being given credit for the damage here were really straight-line winds in disguise)
  • A man in the Keys was killed as he fell into the water and was crushed between his boat and the dock.  Cuban authorities reported one death in Havana related to the storm system.
  • A wind gust of 104 mph was recorded at Miami International Airport
  • A container ship with 25 passengers ran aground near Port Everglades

    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.