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El Niño Prompts Earlier Tornado Drill This Year

Dozens were killed from severe weather and tornadoes in Texas and Mississippi over the holidays. Meteorologists fear this could soon happen in Florida. That is, if history is any clue and residents aren't prepared.  The current El Niño ranks right up there in strength with the record-setting 1997-98 event. This is important because strong El Niño's correlate to a greater frequency of tornadoes in Florida, some unusually strong for this part of the world.

The Florida Division of Emergency Management highlights one week in February every year as "Severe Weather Awareness Week".  This year, officials and weather personnel in central and north Florida felt it was important to get the word out now. Meteorologist Brian LaMarre from the National Weather Service in Tampa said the pattern could shift soon and place many people at risk for severe weather and tornadoes.

"The jet stream is starting to spread a little bit farther south in the Southern U.S. We're going to see more of a current coming in from California, across Texas and the Mississippi River Valley, and over to Florida."

This stronger flow of wind is what often leads to an enhanced risk of tornadoes in the state, particularly in Central Florida. As we have noted repeatedly this fall, the two recent deadliest tornadoes outbreaks in our state occurred during El Niño winters of 1998 and 2007. Also, it's likely no coincidence that the only two accounts of an F4 tornado were during the El Niño's of 1958 and 1966.

Steve Watts, Director of Emergency Management for Osceola County, wants everyone to participate in a tornado drill Wednesday at 10 am.

“We’re trying to get as many of the members of the community to be aware of where they may need to go to shelter in the event of a tornado, whether it be somewhere locally in their community or even giving some consideration to going out of town if they live in a mobile home park or campground.”



Preparation and staying informed are the keys to surviving the sudden blast of 100+ mph winds from a tornado. Winds of that strength can destroy everything you own in a matter of seconds.  The first line of defense is awareness. The Florida Public Radio Emergency Network has a unique mobile app that allows you to customize severe weather alerts for multiple locations at street level. It's called Florida Storms and available free of charge in the app store today.


Many Floridians don't have storm shelters that are underground such as in the so-called "Tornado Alley". However, there are still actions you can take to protect your life if a tornado is approaching.  The following recommendations are something to think about on a calm weather day, such as during today's drill, so that you'll have the peace of mind to react quickly.


If you are in a home, small building, school, or work place...
  • Go to a pre-designated area such as a safe room, basement, storm cellar, or the lowest building level. If there is no basement, go to the center of a small interior room on the lowest level (closet, interior hallway) away from corners, windows, doors, and outside walls. Put as many walls as possible between you and the outside. Get under a sturdy table and use your arms to protect your head and neck.
  • In a high-rise building, go to a small interior room or hallway on the lowest floor possible.
  • Put on sturdy shoes.
  • Do not open windows.
If you are in a manufactured home or office...
  • Get out immediately and go to a pre-identified location such as the lowest floor of a sturdy, nearby building or a storm shelter. Mobile homes, even if tied down, offer little protection from tornadoes.
If you are outside with no immediate place of shelter available...

If you are not in a sturdy building, there is no single research-based recommendation for what last-resort action to take because many factors can affect your decision. Possible actions include:

  • Immediately get into a vehicle, buckle your seat belt and try to drive to the closest sturdy shelter. If your vehicle is hit by flying debris while you are driving, pull over and park.
  • Take cover in a stationary vehicle. Put the seat belt on and cover your head with your arms and a blanket, coat or other cushion if possible.
  • Lie in an area noticeably lower than the level of the roadway and cover your head with your arms and a blanket, coat or other cushion if possible.
In all situations:
  • Do not get under an overpass or bridge. You are safer in a low, flat location.
  • Never try to outrun a tornado in urban or congested areas in a car or truck. Instead, leave the vehicle immediately for safe shelter.
  • Watch out for flying debris. Flying debris from tornadoes causes most fatalities and injuries.


The Florida Public Radio Emergency Network and UF Weather Team will continue monitoring every weather system that heads our way in the coming weeks and will keep you informed of any possible hazardous weather well in advance.


Sources include nearest National Weather Service office, National Hurricane Center, and the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network (@FloridaStorms).
Sources include nearby emergency management agencies, FEMA, and your local NPR affiliate. 
Sources include the Florida Department of Transportation, Florida Highway Patrol and other nearby traffic information.

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A service of WUFT at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications 

Partners of the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network include: Florida's Division of Emergency Management, WDNA (Miami), WFIT (Melbourne), WMFE (Orlando), WFSU (Tallahassee), WGCU (Fort Myers), WJCT (Jacksonville), WKGC (Panama City), WLRN (Miami), WMNF (Tampa-Sarasota), WQCS (Fort Pierce), WUFT (Gainesville-Ocala), WUSF (Tampa), WUWF (Pensacola) and Florida Public Media.

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