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El Nio brings high risk of extreme weather, tornado activity to area

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By Kellie Parkin

El Niño is here, and the National Weather Service and the Levy County Emergency Management are urging residents to prepare for potential severe weather caused by its impacts.

El Niño, the periodic warming of central and eastern tropical Pacific waters, occurs on average every two to five years and typically lasts about 12 months, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“El Niño episodes bring more frequent and stronger storms across the Gulf of Mexico and southern United States,” said Dan Noah, Warning Coordination Meteorologist for NWS - Ruskin. “(It) results in a higher threat for severe weather, excessive rainfall, and coastal storms in Florida.”

Although El Niño can cause more extreme weather, it also lessens the chance of hurricanes.

“El Niño tends to reduce the number of storms in the Atlantic Basin – which includes the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean,” Noah said.

An increase in winds aloft makes it harder for storms to develop, Noah said.

The 1992 El Niño recorded only 6 named storms in the Atlantic. That year, Hurricane Andrew made landfall in Homestead, FL on Aug. 23.  

“Always prepare for one storm each year,” Noah said.

Even though the threat of hurricanes is reduced during El Niño years, Noah and the NWS advise people to prepare for other severe weather caused in part by frequent cold fronts, including excessive rainfall, coastal storms, and tornado activity, he said.

“This winter we can plan on cold fronts every 4-5 days,” Noah said. “And all the tornadoes in Florida happen in El Niño years.”

Florida has never recorded a F5 tornado (above 200 mph on the Enhanced Fujita scale), Noah said, but two recorded events document F4 tornadoes (166-200 mph): April 15, 1958 in Polk County and April 4, 1966 in Pinellas, Polk and Osceola counties.

Florida’s two deadliest tornado outbreaks, however, occurred much more recently, Noah said. On Feb. 22-23, 1998, there were 42 fatalities in Kissimmee. On Feb. 2, 2007, there were 21 fatalities in Lady Lake.

Levy County Commissioner Lilly Rooks, of Cedar Key, called the Emergency Management Center Thursday to report a funnel cloud she spotted in Cedar Key.

“I was on my way into town and saw it from the Number 4 Bridge,” Rooks said in a phone interview Tuesday. “It was impressive but worrisome – I was afraid it would touch down.”

She estimates it was somewhere near the cemetery. “I watched it for about 3-4 minutes – dropping way down, going back up, then back down. It stayed just above the tree tops.”

Rooks said she spoke with another person who also saw the funnel cloud. “He said it was huge,” she said.

“We’ve been lucky so far,” said Mark Johnson, Director of Levy County Emergency Management. “These frequent cold fronts can cause a collision of temperatures and that’s where we see the tornado activity.”

Johnson also warned not to get too comfortable this hurricane season. “Some of the worst hurricanes that ever hit the United States were in El Nino years,” he said. “All it takes is one.”

Residents need to be prepared for storms and severe weather, Johnson said. “Levy County is one of the most vulnerable in NWS-Ruskin’s area because of how we jet out into the gulf and the tidal patterns we have.”