Groundhog Day 2007 is one that many Central Floridians won’t soon forget.
Hours before sunrise, three tornadoes touched down in three different counties. Many people were asleep. This outbreak predated the Wireless Emergency Alerts that would now wake someone with the distinct emergency sound blaring from cell phones often kept on nightstands next to the bed. Unless there was a weather radio in the home, or someone was up with the TV on, there was no way to know there was a tornado nearby.
The risk for tornadic activity was moderate, meaning a widespread severe storm or tornado outbreak was expected as a cold front inched closer.
Broadcast meteorologists conveyed the impending risk issued by the National Weather Service the day before the outbreak. Central Florida was in a primed, unstable sector ahead of the front. All the ingredients for a tornado to develop were there. There was large scale lift, strong vertical wind shear from the ground up, and both temperatures and dewpoints were rising steadily as a long-track supercell thunderstorm moved through.
The first tornado touched down at 3:08 a.m. near Wildwood. It was on the ground for 17 minutes, crossing from Sumter into Lake County before lifting near Lady Lake. The track was 16.5 miles long with peak-intensity winds reaching 155-160 mph. Post-storm damage surveys rated the tornado a strong EF-3. Reports showed building walls collapsed, trees were ripped down and mobile homes were completely destroyed. Eight people lost their lives in this first tornado.
Twelve minutes later, a second EF-3 rated tornado touched down in Lake County just west of Lake Norris. This violent tornado was on the ground for 26 miles, ending in Volusia County just east of the fairgrounds 33 minutes later. Peak intensity was estimated between 160-165 mph, stripping trees of their bark as they were uprooted. Over three hundred homes were completely destroyed with the majority of the damage reported in DeLand. Thirteen people died as a result from the second tornado.
Twelve minutes after the second tornado lifted in DeLand, the third touched down between Interstate 95 and State Road 44 in New Smyrna Beach. For three minutes the tornado traveled three miles before lifting near the Intracoastal Waterway just to the west of Ponce Inlet. Post-storm damage reports rated the tornado as an EF-1 with peak winds between 100-105 mph, ripping the roofs off of homes and causing chimneys to crumble to the ground. A total of 25 homes were completely destroyed in New Smyrna Beach and surrounding unincorporated areas of Volusia County. No lives were lost in the third tornado.
Nocturnal tornadoes are deemed more deadly than those that occur during the day. Not only are they harder to see, but most people are asleep and unable to receive warnings broadcast over radio and television. That was the case in 2007.
By 2012, Weather Emergency Alerts or WEAs were announced as new technology that would help save lives during severe weather and other emergency events. The alert is sent directly to mobile phones only in the impacted area accompanied by a blaring tone so loud it can wake someone sleeping, alerting them of the potential danger. In return, more people have enough reaction time to get to a safe place inside their home, resulting in less lives lost in extreme weather events such as tornadoes. The alert will sound and vibrate the cell phone twice.
This technology has already been proven to save lives all across the United States. A NWS report showed a Mississippi woman was getting ready for bed when the alert on her cell phone went off. She was able to turn on the TV to get more details on where the tornado was heading, and as she looked outside, the lightning backlit the tornado heading toward the home. The woman woke her family and was able to take shelter in the bathroom moments before the tornado started ripping away the very bedroom she was in minutes before. She credits her family’s safety to the WEA.