Seven tornadoes rip through central Florida on this day in 1998, killing 42 people. This was the deadliest outbreak of twisters in Florida’s history.
The potential for deadly storms in the winter of 1997-98 in Florida was first forecast in October. The El Nino weather system was in full effect, pushing high-altitude jet stream winds further south than normal–right through the middle of Florida. Meteorologists predicted that this would give rise to a significant possibility of tornado activity in Florida, where such events are usually quite rare. A few twisters hit southern Florida on February 2, but were not deadly. On Friday, February 20, officials saw that an unusually warm system arriving from the southeast was set to collide with the jet stream, which suggested that tornadoes were very likely. The public was alerted.
On Sunday, official tornado warnings were issued for counties across the central portion of the state. However, despite the advance notice, many people went to bed and turned off their radios and televisions, missing the detailed warnings that were issued in the evening. The first tornado struck down at about 10:30 p.m.; six more formed over the next several hours.
The most powerful and deadly tornado of the series came down in Kissimmee at 12:40 a.m. It was categorized as an F3 with winds up to 206 miles per hour. The tornado destroyed multiple motor homes in the city’s Ponderosa RV Park, where 10 people died, including a man who was thrown onto the Florida Turnpike. Elsewhere in Kissimmee, an 18-month-old child was pulled right out of its father’s arms by the tornado and killed. In all, 25 people lost their lives in Kissimmee.
The last of the 42 victims died from his injuries on March 5. At least 250 people were seriously injured and approximately 3,000 buildings were destroyed. And it could have been worse–the tornadoes took paths that went just north and just south of the city of Orlando, the most heavily populated part of the region.