Make your home page

Florida’s deadliest tornado outbreak revisited 25 years later

Photo courtesy of NWS Melbourne

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – During the late night and early morning hours of Feb. 22-23, 1998, a devastating series of tornadoes struck central Florida.

This tornado outbreak killed 42 people and injured more than 260. It became the deadliest tornado event to ever occur in Florida state history just ahead of the Feb. 2, 2007 and Mar. 31, 1962 events.

Florida is known as the lightning capital of the world, and there are more thunderstorms in Florida than anywhere else in the U.S. When it comes to tornadic activity, most of that comes from tropical systems.

However, there have been rare cases in which Florida sees a full fledged scenario of supercells producing significant tornadoes. Florida doesn’t see deadly tornadoes too often, but the night of Feb. 22, 1998 would prove to unfortunately be very different from any typical severe weather setup.

Going into 1998, one of the strongest el-niño’s on record was underway. A el-niño in relation to the southeastern U.S. typically means wetter weather for that region as the sub-tropical jet stream shifts much farther south than normal. The National Weather Service in Melbourne, FL realized well in advance that as a result of this powerful el-niño, there would be a greater risk for severe weather in the spring of 1998.

On Sunday, Feb. 22, 1998, a volatile low pressure system was marching into Florida with a powerful trailing cold front from Alabama. Jet stream winds of up to 160 MPH screamed over the Gulf of Mexico and Florida. By nightfall, the low level jet ramped up to over 55 MPH, and this helped bring a warm and moist environment at the surface.

The combination of extreme wind shear and unstable air led way to a historic tornado outbreak for central Florida.

Earlier in the day on Feb. 22, weak tornadoes took place in southeastern AL, southern GA, and northern FL. The Storm Prediction Center had highlighted a moderate risk of severe weather for northern and central FL at 6 AM EST on Feb. 22. By noon EST, NWS Melbourne issued a hazardous weather outlook mentioning a significant threat for tornadoes. Significant tornadoes are anything rated F/EF2 or higher.

As the cold front drew closer to Florida, supercell development would ramp up. Additional brief tornadoes formed in Indialantic and Coleman, FL close to and after sunset. Then, at 10:55 PM EST, the storm that spawned the Coleman tornado would produce the first significant tornado of this event. A strong F2 would damage dozens of homes and mobile homes as it passed just south of Daytona International Speedway. One person would be killed by this tornado.

Things would only continue to go downhill as a powerful supercell would spawn an intense tornado at 11:37 PM EST south of Orange Mountain and track 18 miles to near Lockhart. This F3 tornado killed three people and heavily impacted the Winter Garden-Ocoeee area. As a matter of fact, the only photo of any tornado from this outbreak came from this specific tornado.

The Winter Garden cell would drop another destructive F3 tornado that slammed southeastern portions of Sanford in which neighborhoods and mobile home parks were hit hard. This would be the second deadliest tornado of the outbreak as 13 people were killed. Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come.

At, 12:40 AM EST on Feb. 23, the deadliest tornado of not only this outbreak, but in Florida state history, would form near Campbell. This tornado would go on to devastate Kissimmee in which it hit the Ponderosa Pines RV Park there at its maximum intensity, and it would eventually lift near Port St. John, just west of the Great Outdoors RV Park. The Kissimmee F3 tornado caused 25 fatalities, over 150 injuries, and more than $55 million in damage. One interesting thing to note is that this was originally rated an F4, but was later downgraded.

Another strong tornado (F2) formed from the Winter Garden cell and would strike Oak Hill just before 1 AM EST. Then, two F1’s would take place near Titusville and Cape Canaveral.

One factor that made this a particularly deadly event was that it occurred overnight when many residents were asleep. In the past, the only method for citizens to receive a National Weather Service tornado warning while asleep was via a tone-alerted NOAA Weather Radio. Today, most residents receive tornado warnings automatically on their personal cell phones through the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, providing a final opportunity to move to a more secure location.

During a 5-hour period from late on Feb. 22 into the early morning hours of Feb. 23, NWS Melbourne meteorologists issued 14 tornado warnings. All seven significant tornadoes were preceded by tornado warnings, with an average lead time of 15 minutes. The four tornadoes that resulted in fatalities had an average lead time of 23-minutes.