February 4, 1998 in Nation/World

Florida Storm Spawns Tornado, Sudden Damage

Knight Ridder
 

South Florida awoke Tuesday to damage as massive and surprising as the storm and whirlwinds that caused it:

Shorn roofs and shattered windows in the Keys. A boater killed on Stock Island when a wave crushed him between a boat hull and a concrete wall. Dozens of planes and helicopters toppled like toys in Opa-locka and Pembroke Pines. Several boaters rescued in high seas off Key West. Closed roads, downed trees and downed power lines everywhere.

Battered Monroe County, operating under a state of emergency, shut down schools. They’ll reopen today. Some 220,000 Florida Power & Light customers - from private homes to public schools - remained without electricity, most in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

What actually hit was nothing near a major hurricane. But it was a quick, hard sucker punch of a storm that apparently spawned at least one nasty tornado and possibly others.

Shawn O’Neill, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service, said low pressure and a favorable jet stream combined to rapidly supercharge a massive storm system moving up from the Gulf of Mexico.

The storm, which covered two-thirds of the Florida peninsula, churned up gusts that in South Florida reached hurricane force. Meteorologists at Miami International Airport, which closed its tower temporarily, recorded the highest at 104 mph. At Conch Key, gusts hit a reported 82 mph.

The storm also spun off tornadoes with unconfirmed reports stretching from the Dry Tortugas to western Palm Beach County. O’Neill said the Doppler radar Monday night showed two strong signatures over Dade and one over the Middle Keys.

Jim Lushine, a weather service forecaster, studied the ground damage Tuesday and said at least one twister - about 200 to 300 yards wide with winds he estimated at 125 to 150 mph - probably mowed a 17-mile-long swath from Miami International Airport through OpaLocka into Pembroke Pines near North Perry Airport. As reports mounted, the state activated its Division of Emergency Management early Tuesday morning.


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