Residents recall deadly Central Florida tornado 20 years later

By Mallory Nicholls, Meteorologist
Last Updated: Monday, February 19, 2018, 9:30 PM EST

Feb. 22 marks 20 years since Central Florida’s deadliest tornado outbreak.

  • Central Florida's deadliest tornado landed 20 years ago
  • Sumter, Volusia, Brevard, Seminole, Lake, Osceola counties affected
  • Majority of fatalities just south of Kissimmee

Residents of Central Florida at the time will never forget that night.

Patty Webb lost her husband as a tornado hit her home. She said after that night, everything changed. She has a healthy respect for storms.  

The outbreak was caused by a cold front moving into Florida that Sunday afternoon. Thunderstorms developed along the Florida panhandle, kicking out several boundaries that rushed toward Central Florida.

Most went to bed as they normally would, only to wake up to the sound of tornadoes. Between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., nine tornadoes touched down, killing forty-two people and injuring over 250 others.

There were two tornadoes in Sumter, Volusia, and Brevard counties. One tornado dropped down in Seminole, Lake, and Osceola counties. The majority of the fatalities occurred in the rare F3 tornado that dropped just south of Kissimmee.

F3 tornadoes have winds over 158 miles per hour. Twenty-five people lost their lives as this tornado moved into Kissimmee and crossed into Orange County around 1am.

Michael Capranica works for the Osceola County Fire Rescue department and remembers seeing the damage. He saw trailers completely picked up and upside down.

“Everything was chaos,” Michael recalled.

The tornadoes produced damage at an estimate of over $100 million. Over 3,000 structures were damaged, with over 700 of these structures completely destroyed.

Back in 1998, alert systems were not as advanced. The only way to get notified of a tornado in the middle of the night was to have a NOAA Weather Radio. Only a small portion of the community had one.

It’s important to have a way of being alerted not only during the day, but one to wake you up in the middle of the night.