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Severe Weather Awareness Week: Tornadoes and Thunderstorms

Wednesday is the third day of Florida’s Severe Weather Awareness Week, when we will cover a different topic in weather safety every day. Stay informed by following Florida Storms, the Florida Division of Emergency Management and your local National Weather Service office on social media.

Florida has a landscape ripe for thunderstorm development. According to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, Florida averages just over 70 thunderstorms days per year. Some areas of the Gulf Coast can even get up to 100.

Severe thunderstorms can produce a variety of hazards with little lead time, including winds of more than 58 miles per hour. That’s enough to down tree limbs of rip outdoor screens. Severe thunderstorms may also produce hail one inch in size, about the size of a quarter, which can damage homes, vehicles and potentially harm anyone still outdoors. Heavy rains, which can lead to flooding, and lightning also typically accompany a severe thunderstorm.

One of the most dangerous threats produced by severe thunderstorms are tornadoes. Chief Meteorologist of the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network Jeff George spent 17 years forecasting storms in “Tornado Alley,” a region spanning from South Dakota to Texas that is especially prone to tornado activity.

Though Florida is known as the Sunshine State, it ranks fifth nationally in average number of tornadoes.

“Florida has tornadoes every month of the year,” said Chief Meteorologist of the Florida Division of Emergency Management Amy Godsey, “we have the most tornadoes in the summer, but the deadlier ones tend to occur in the early part of the year.”

In Florida, George said, the Panhandle is typically the most vulnerable to tornado formation, though the threat extends as far south as the I-4 corridor. Outside of thunderstorms, tornadoes may also be produced during tropical cyclones, though they are typically harder to track due to the greater storm activity of a hurricane or tropical storm.

George said to always have multiple ways to receive weather alerts from your local National Weather Service office, local government or local news media. When severe thunderstorms of tornadoes are forecasted, NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center will issue an advisory, watch or warning.

A watch means conditions are favorable for tornadoes, but the location or timing is still uncertain. You should have a plan and be ready to act should you receive a tornado warning. Once you receive a tornado warning, it means there is a tornado imminent or already occurring in your vicinity, and you must act now.

Compared to a tropical cyclone, the lead time to a tornado is short, just minutes instead of days. The good news is technology is evolving to give us the edge.

“Lead time has increased over the past few decades,” said George, “now the average lead time is between 10 and 15 minutes.”

However, Godsey said sometimes you may only have one or two minutes to act. Godsey said it’s human nature to go outside and see what the weather is like, but don’t waste time trying to visually confirm a tornado.

With those valuable minutes, George said to stay indoors and get to the lowest and inner most portion of your home. A room without a window is best, even if it’s a hallway or a bathroom. The rule of thumb is to put as many walls between you and the outdoors as possible. If you are on the road, George said to try and find any building to shelter in, such as a gas station or a store, until the threat has passed.

George said to also consider the structural integrity of your home. For example, even an EF0 tornado (the weakest kind) can topple a mobile or manufactured home. If you live in one, identify a nearby structure, such as a laundry building or community clubhouse, that you could shelter in if necessary.

Godsey said tornadoes can change course suddenly, or dissipate, so the tornado warning might pass without incident. Still, she said not to let your guard down during the next weather emergency.

“If it’s a false alarm, great. But you never know when it’s not going to be.”