THE SEVERE WEATHER OUTBREAK OF March 30/31 1996 IN EAST CENTRAL FLORIDA AKA - A succesfull tornado chase in Florida Well, I should have known that it was going to be a wild weather weekend, as when I got home from work saturday morning, I had noticed that lightning had hit a dead tree in my backyard, shattering a good part of it into many pieces (I am now the proud owner of lots of kindling...too bad I don't have a fire place...) As quite a few of you know, east central Florida experienced quite a bit of svr wx last weekend. Although it is not the most deadliest, it is likely the most widespread event ever documented for our area. In addition to two confirmed tornadoes, there were numerous softball size hail storms across the central part of the state both on saturday and sunday (A new hailsize record for the state of Florida). The two confirmed tornadoes were both relatively weak, one striking Cocoa Beach (2 miles N of the famous "Ron Jons" - an F1) and the second striking in a remote area of Indian River county west of Vero Beach (VRB) - F0. The first tornado occurred Saturday, the second Sunday. Both occurred at night. I was fortunate enough (finally) to see the second tornado. To make this discussion read easier, it will help to mention that I am a NWS meteorologist (forecaster at NWS/Melbourne [MLB]) and a HAM KE4-GRR. I have been chasing storms for over 9 years. It will also be advantageous for you to pull out a map of Florida. Saturday, April 2. I knew things were going to get interesting across the MLB CWA early saturday morning (and I mean early - 2 am) as the new guidance showed a fairly decent short wave in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) moving towards the region. Dewpoints were already in the upper 60s to around 70 and a weak cold front was progged to move back north as a warm front. 500 mb temps were around -12. A cluster of convection was moving east from the GOM. Negative factors were that there was no well defined jet dynamics and the shear was progged to be only fair at best. However, things became quite clear that we were going to see quite a bit of severe weather over the region when the new soundings/upper air data came in. The morning cape canveral sounding was already indicating -5 LI (unmodified). Helicity from the TBW sounding was already in the low 100s. CAPES would be in the 2000-3000 j/kg range. Upper air data implied strong divergence over the peninsula. Knowing that the boundary was going to be in place across the c part of the state, and the fact that the sea breeze was likely going to form, there was going to be 2 good areas to chase (these boundaries would act as a focal point for storms and enhance the low level winds). The first area would be along the developing warm front, and the second was along the sea breeze. (More information regarding how these boundaries are conducive to svr wx in Fl can be found in the latest Svr Local storms preprints - See SHARP and HODANISH article) After advising my relief (Scott, who is also a HAM which would become critical later) to upgrade the ATO and word it much stronger (which was done - tornadoes were mentioned in the ATO, a rather rare occurrence for Florida), I headed out to get the car worked on (needed tires) and to take care of a few other things. Returning to the office around 1 pm, surface obs and the 88D indicated that the warm front had set up from a Sanford to Titusville line and extended off the coast. Storms were forming just west of Titusville. It was time to head north from MLB. As every one knows, Florida is not Oklahoma or west Texas. However, I have been determined to see a true tornado in this state, so I have scoped out nearly every road and region within a 150 mile radius of Melbourne. I know where good places are that are wide open and places to avoid at all cost. I also have the Florida Gazeteer which list nearly every road in the state (similar to the "Roads of Texas"). Being a ham also helps out tremendously. It did not take long for the storm west of Titusville to become severe. By time I reached route 50 and I-95, the updraft base was in sight. Climbing up on the bridge, I could not believe my eyes - a rotating meso 2 miles north of me! (the first one I have ever seen in Florida). This meso began to move to the east, so I got eastbound on route 50 and headed towards the Indian River (actually a bay) to get a better view. Once finding a place along the river with a good view to the west, I tracked the meso moving southeast across the southern part of the city. During this time, winds were gusting to 30 to 40 miles an hour from the southeast (into the storm!) This, once again, was the first time I ever felt strong inflow into a thunderstorm in Florida. I later found out this storm produced golf balls in the city along with 4 to 5" of rain in about an hour (flooding was minor - hey! this is FLORIDA). Unfortunately, this storm outflowed out as it was heading out over the Indian River, Since I was not interested in seeing waterspouts (tornadic or not), and knowing that there were no more good storms along the warm frontal boundary (this turned out to be false...details below), It was time to go find the sea breeze boundary which was in Osceola county... Calling back to the office from Holopaw (in Osceola county), I was advised by the WCM that a supercell was in Polk county, one county to the west. I was also advised that this storm had a history of producing softball size hail. I was advised to take 441 south and intercept the storm in the Kenansville area. I was told that the storm was moving to the east at about 30 mph and that I would have to move immediately if I were to get in front of the storm. I decided that if I encountered very heavy rain or large hail on my way south that I would turn around. I was already aware that the storms were producing large hail and did not want my automobile destroyed. Moving south just north of the Kenansville area I encountered about 1 inch hail at exactly 5 pm (remember this time). I continued to move south encountering moderate to heavy rain but vis remainded rather good. What was eiry (sp) about this storm was the lightning. I mever remember seeing so many lightning bolts hit within 1/2 of a mile of me. I was watching nearly every CG, about 10 seconds apart, hit the ground in front of me. As I began to get out of the rain I noticed a low cloud deck to my immediate south. These low clouds were racing (and I mean RACING) to the northwest...oh &@%$, I said. Sure enough when I cleared out I looked to my west and there was a another large meso...about 1000 feet off the surface about 2 miles off in the distance. This meso showed strong rotation, but never did I see a tornado with it as it moved to the east-southeast. Unfortunately, this meso was eventually undercut by outflow.(The storm above is on the NWS/MLBs homepage - http://sunmlb.nws.fit.edu
Look under the radar section. Severe weather event of weekend March 30/31 - Look for the supercell (hook) in Osceola county. look for the city of Kenansville on this image. I was about 4 miles south of kenansville at this time. Looking back at the radar data, this storm formed over the Tampa Bay area and quickly became severe. The storm moved east over Polk county and split. The left member moved northeast and became severe, but then weakened as it entered the Orlando area. The right member [the storm I was on] remained severe and crossed the state producing very large hail).
With it getting dark and the above storm heading towards unpopulated area in western Indian River county, I decided to call it quits and head back to the office.
Geetting back to the office, I took a glimpse at the radar and observed another 75+ Dbz supercell was moving across N Brevard county. Although I knew that chasing it would be useless as it was heading offshore, I decided to cruise up north again into the Titusville area to get some ltg shots and possibly see some large hail on the ground. Getting up to the Titusville area, I was shocked to see the amount of lightning which was occurring with this storm. I got to a point were I could turn off my headlights (briefly) as I did not need them - the lightning was CONTINUOUS - You could not tell where on flash ended and another one began!!! Taking lightning photos would be useless as I would have saturated the film in a second! In addition, all the lightning was green. The lightning itself obviously was not green, but the in-cloud flashes in the hail infested storm was causing the lightning to appear green.
This storm, as it moved towards the Merritt Island/Cocoa beach area prodcuced the first tornado of this weekend. It initially touched down just south of route 520 on Merritt island, causing damage to a residence. It then moved east-northeast, striking the parking lot of the Cape Canaveral hospital (windows were blown out of cars in the parking lot). The tornado continued moving to the ENE and struck 2 miles north of the route 520/A1A interesection. This tornado moved across the island, striking many buildings, with most of the damage to an auto dealership and a nudy bar. There were over 150 people in this bar when it hit (the "entertainment" in this place MUST be good!!). Luckily, the tornado was rather weak, blowing out the windows and ripping off part of the roof. If this tornado would have been stronger it could have been the worst tornado disaster in modern history (TOR warnings were in affect).
...Toll booth operators on the bee-line expressway (rt 528 in rural e Oange county) reported windows being blown out of automobiles at teh 0.20 cent toll booth.
...The WCM reported that he found 5" diamemter holes in tin roof in rural Polk county caused by hailstones.
Sunday - April 3
Well, after seeing what I saw on the yesterday, I did not think it could get any better. I was wrong.
Severe weather on this date began late for Florida, around 430 pm. The reason for the storms being late was due to the atmosphere over the state being capped and lack of moisture (the moisture was progged to come back over the southern 1/2 of the CWA in which it did). I planned on heading northwest in Orange county to meet up with a line of storms coming off the GOM. The storms initially became severe in Lake county but weakened into a broken line as they moved east-southeast across the MCO (Orlando) metro area. Recognizing these storms were weakening, I decided to head back to the MLB area. However, I knew that the best moisture was progged to be from southern Brevard county southward down into s Florida. As I got into S Brevard county, I got on the ham radio and was advised that a severe cell showing rotation was in southern Osceola county. I was asked if I was interested in getting closer to this storm to give it a good look over. Although it was dark (around 7 pm), I said I would (at least I would TRY to get some ltg shots this time). I was advised to head south on I95 and to get on route 60 westbound.
As I was traveeling west on 60 I was advised that this storms was rapidly intensifying, with 70+ dbz core aloft. travelling (slowly) west I began to notice a well defined lowering to my west-northwest. I slowed down and watched this feature, but it quickly broke up as fast as it formed. Getting into some heavy rain, I decided to turn around as it would not be adviseable to find large hail on a narrow 2 lane hiway in a very desolate part of Florida. Keeping an eye to my rear, I quickly noticed another more significant lowering to my northwest. At the same time the winds picked up rapidly from a southerly component, strong enough to were I was actually having trouble keeping the car on a straight line. At the same time, I was advised that a deep meso was forming to 2 miles NW of my location a TOR was being issued. Keeping an eye to this feature while at the same time trying to get into a safer place, I noticed a funnel and then a tornado touch down (The torando was being illuminated by ltg). I got a few good seconds of this tornado before my view was blocked by trees.
Reaching I95, the winds shifted to the northwest and gusted to 40 to 50 miles an hour (I was now SW of the meso and safe). I was advised that the system was now off to my NE and was no longer a threat (shortly after this VRB reported a gust to 52 knts).
(At no time during this event did I ever CORE punch - If I did I would have lost every window in my car as softball hail was confirmed with this storm east of Felsmere in Indian River county. I was also in direct contact with the wx office via ham radio the whole time and was being advised of the storm/meso location volume scan by volume scan).
A damage survey of this storm found tree damage north of my location where I saw the tornado from route 60. Two truckers also saw the tornado cross the interstate around mile marker number 150, a few miles up the road from the route 60/I95 interchange. Funnel clouds were also reported in the Vero Beach area.
This storm is also in the NWS/MLB homepage - same location as the storm above. Storm is titled Indian River hail storm. Note the storm report log on the bottom of this file (Mile Marker 160 was initially reported - it was actually MM 150).
Well, I finally saw my first true Florida tornado. It only took 3 years! Hopefully I'll be seeing quite a few more this spring in an easier place to see them - the good ol' s plains.
I hoped you enjoyed this and apologize for its legnth. A thorough study of this event will eventually be done by the staff at NWS/MLB. I hope to put more images on the homepage in the not too distant future.
I also hope this type of event would excite the people at NSSL - severe weather does occur in Florida. I also hope (pray) that the SPC folks would study this event in detail as no weather watch was ever issued for the saturday event.
See you under the meso this spring somewhere in the southern Plains
Stephen Hodanish Forecaster NWS/MLB