Florida’s tornado attacks may worsen until El Nino fades

They struck with breathtaking force and astonishing destruction.

Even for hurricane-hearty Floridians, the eight tornadoes that pulsed through the state this month were soul-shaking, mesmerizing, terrifying.

They stole away two lives in pre-dawn darkness, shredded homes, ripped through power lines like Christmas tinsel and lifted cars as if it was a magic trick — an unimaginable, invisible strength.

The twisters this month in Florida are more than double the normal average for this time of year. According to the Storm Prediction Center, the 25-year average for January tornadoes in Florida is three.

Fueled by an atmospheric stew cooked up by one of the strongest El Ninos on record, experts said this week that Floridians should prepare for an extended stay in a Sunshine State-version of tornado alley.

“Oh, I wouldn’t let your guard down for a couple more months at least,” said Ken Clark, a senior meteorologist with the Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather. “The whole winter pattern is going to be like this.”

The tornado train this year began Jan. 7 in Marathon and has roared through at least once a week since.

A cyclone tore up Cape Coral with 132 mph winds Jan. 9, one zipped through Fort Myers packing 100 mph gales less than a week later, more touched down in Duette, Sarasota, and Hobe Sound on Jan. 17. Then there was the EF-2 in Coconut Creek and Pompano Beach on Wednesday, an EF-0 that zipped through Delray Beach on a northeast path to the ocean Thursday.

“It was kind of calm, and then everything started picking up like hurricane-force winds,” said Ryan McConnell, who got caught briefly outside during Thursday’s tornado in Delray Beach, which had 65 to 85 mph winds. “I basically just got inside in time.”

The two deaths Jan. 17 in Duette — a small unincorporated town in Manatee County between Bradenton and Wauchula — are the first tornado-related fatalities in Florida since 2012.

“Just in the month of January, you’ve had an impressive and tragic number of days with tornadoes,” said Bill Bunting, chief of operations at the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. “It’s not over yet.”

January had three tornadoes ranked EF-2. That’s only happened in three other Januaries since 1950.

“Two of those occurred during El Nino events,” noted William Schmitz, a meteorologist with the Southeast Regional Climate Center.

This year’s El Nino, which is a periodic warming of the water across the eastern Pacific Ocean, was first detected in the spring. The warm water makes radical shifts to rainfall patterns, suppressing showers over Indonesia and moving them to the eastern part of the Pacific.

There, strong thunderstorms form, which influence wind patterns in the upper atmosphere, reducing wind shear in the Pacific and increasing it in the Atlantic.

El Nino grew and grew during the summer to one of the strongest on record. It helped protect Florida from hurricanes during the June-through-November storm season, but its most potent impacts are usually felt strongest during the darkest days of the year.

In winter, El Niño pumps energy into the jet stream, which increases storminess in Florida.

This week, the jet stream was coursing over Central and South Florida at speeds of 130 mph. That kind of power, coupled with a stationary boundary, is a tornado incubator.

“That’s unfortunately what we saw this week,” Bunting said.

Tornadoes are always active in Florida, even during non-El Nino years. In fact, Florida ranks third nationally for tornado activity, falling behind top-ranked Kansas and runner-up Texas.

In 2004, Florida had an unusually high 105 tornadoes, according to the Storm Prediction Center. That’s likely because of the overzealous hurricane season that year. The majority of the tornadoes – 80 percent – happened in August and September.

And often people are stunned at the damage the fleeting cyclones can do. The tornado in Cape Coral damaged 178 structures, destroyed one home and tossed cars around like confetti.

“Within five or 10 seconds, it did as much damage as an eight- or 10-hour hurricane,” said Hobe Sound resident Dave West, after the Jan. 17 tornado.

Greg Forbes, severe weather expert for The Weather Channel, said January’s tornadoes may be just a warm-up for what’s to come.

El Nino is not expected to dissipate until spring or early summer, and February has been a particularly bad month for tornadoes in Florida.

“Florida has not had the big tornado outbreak of real violent tornadoes that sometimes happen during El Nino,” Forbes said. “Those tend to be a February phenomenon and even into March and April. So things could get worse.”

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