Tornadoes pummel Southwest Florida on sleepy Sunday morning

·8 min read

Storms pummeled Southwest Florida on Sunday morning with at least three reports of tornados touching down and more than 60 Lee County homes unlivable, 27 of those destroyed.

Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass confirmed at least four injuries from the storms, while Iona-McGregor Fire District officials reporting there were others in the area of south Fort Myers, which was hit particularly hard. Officials did say there were no deaths.

Of the remaining homes rendered unlivable in Lee County, 24 had major damage and 14 had minor damage. In south Fort Myers, residents started boarding up blown-out windows and repairing what damage they could almost immediately.

By mid-morning, residents all over Southwest Florida were taking shelter and heeding multiple tornado warnings stretching from Charlotte county south into Collier.

Residents of Century 21 in the Iona area embrace after confirmed tornado  touched down on Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022 in the Iona area.
Residents of Century 21 in the Iona area embrace after confirmed tornado touched down on Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022 in the Iona area.

The National Weather Service out of Tampa reported tornados in the Iona area of south Fort Myers, as well as in south Charlotte County and east of Gateway Estates in Collier County and was investigating whether it was one tornado or multiple tornados.

Tampa also reported a tornado.

How to help: Southwest Florida families in need of assistance after tornado

Related: See a rolling storm report that shows damages

The storms came in advance of a strong cold front moving into the region.

The first Southwest Florida tornado warning went out across Lee County just before 8 a.m., with subsequent ones as the line of storms moved south and east, reaching Ava Maria east of Naples by mid-morning.

A National Weather Service forecaster in Tampa, Stephen Shiveley, said "something just came ashore." That echoed throughout Collier County as well.

The half marathon in Naples went on as planned starting at 7 a.m. but the awards ceremony was canceled as the storms started to make their way on shore.

Eye-witness accounts

Edward Murray, 81, was in his mobile home at Windcrest and Point Breeze in Cottage Point Trailer Park in south Fort Myers on Sunday morning when a tornado picked up the structure and tossed it on top of a neighbor's home.

"That’s my house that’s turned upside down," he said. “The tornado took me off my feet, blew me toward the east wall and buried me under the sink, refrigerator, kitchen chairs and everything else.”

A former Chicago resident, Murray and his daughter, Koki, escaped unharmed, crawling from the wreckage.

“I was so happy when I saw the sky,” Murray said. “I said to the devil, 'It’s not going to be today'.”

Murray’s daughter was in her bedroom and her mattress flipped on her. She crawled out a back window.

The family’s dog, a poodle, was still missing.

At the Iona trailer park, workers were boarding up homes and putting up plywood as sheriff’s deputies roamed through the area.

Jeff Funchion lives across from Murray, and his trailer sustained just broken windows.

“I’ve never been through something like this,” he said. “The windows broke and that was it. The TV beeped and then it hit.”

Another resident recounted pretty much the same story.

"I had a rough wake-up call and by the time the windows blew in it was over with,” said Dan Langenfeld, who with his wife, Jan, are originally from Minnesota. "It didn’t last long. The wife, the dogs and I are fine.”

Unopened beer cans mixed in the debris field along a street.

“I think I’ll have a cold one later,” Langenfeld said as he surveyed the damage.

Lee County emergency officials evacuated Tropicana Park, built in 1970, with 470 homesites serving a 55+ community, and the Red Cross was assisting with emergency shelter.

Official response

Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno and Iona McGregor Fire Department Deputy Chief of operations/incident commander Khalid Aquil spoke about the response to Sunday's tornado.

Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno folds a  American flag after a flag pole was damaged in the Century 21 Mobile Home Park in a tornado in the Iona area in Fort Myers  on Sunday Jan, 16, 2022.
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno folds a American flag after a flag pole was damaged in the Century 21 Mobile Home Park in a tornado in the Iona area in Fort Myers on Sunday Jan, 16, 2022.

"We had a significant weather event this morning which allowed us to respond quickly and pool our resourses," Aqui said.

He said the area mostly hit was the John Morris Road and McGregor Boulevard area of south Fort Myers and as of noon first responders were combing neighborhoods checking on residents.

"To be sure we're not missing anybody," Aquil said of the search and rescue efforts.

See videos: Storm damage across Fort Myers, Iona, Naples and on Alligator Alley

Marceno stressed that debris, possible live power lines and other hazards were still prevalent in and around the damaged area.

"Although things may seem safe ... there are things beyond your control or what you can't see, that make things very unsafe," Marceno said.

Collier County

Florida Highway Patrol reported a tornado flipped a semi tractor-trailer truck on its side, blocking traffic in Collier County at westbound mile marker 96 on Interstate 75, temporarily closing the lanes.

Troopers spotted the tornado at 9:34 a.m. traveling east toward Golden Gate

They reported minor injuries from the crash.

Other sites experienced temporary flooding from heavy rains, with some street flooding in low lying areas in East Naples. There were no immediate reports of damage.

Naples Pier closed this morning and remained closed at 1 p.m., according to Naples Police.

Rick Zyvoloski, emergency management coordinator on call from Collier County Emergency Service, said there was one report of a tornado in the Lely community in East Naples.

“There was no damage, just some debris,” he said.

He had not heard of any damage anywhere else in Collier. A sheriff’s deputy went to the Hitching Post mobile home community near Barefoot Williams Road and US 41 E. but did not get back of any damage there.

A particularly strong storm cell with a tornado rotation appeared to be bearing down on Everglades City at a time when many people were in church Sunday morning.

Everglades City

Bob Wallace, pastor of Everglades Community Church, moved members into the safest space in the church, an interior hallway, without windows, between the offices and the church. People set up chairs there and continued their service.

“Everyone’s cellphones kept going off, so we were keeping up with what was going on,” he said.

At Holy Family Catholic Church in Everglades City, 10:30 a.m. Mass was celebrated as usual for a congregation of around 40, with a volunteer stationed at a west window to monitor the storm.

The church, like all in the Diocese of Venice, has an emergency plan, said the Rev. Timothy Navin, its priest in charge. Parishioners can take cover in its two inside restrooms.

The choir music was augmented with intermittent choruses of alarms, said member Elaine Middlestaedt: “We just looked at our phones and kept singing.”

Brandon Smallwood, who was at the Smallwood General Store, said he understood a tornado had bounced once on his property, at a high point in the Chokoloskee area. But there, as elsewhere, damage was largely fallen tree branches and overturned light objects such as lawn chairs and trash cans.

Charlotte County

The storms caused damage at a marina and mobile home park in Charlotte County, and authorities there opened a shelter for those displaced because of damage to their homes.

The Ann & Chuck Dever Regional Park Recreation Center in Englewood was available to residents.

Charlotte County government tweeted that in the Village of Holiday Lakes, several homes sustained damage and some residents were displaced, but there were no injuries.

Charlotte Fire & EMS also responded to damage off Gasparilla Road.

The Gasparilla Marina sustained some damage — the county displayed a photo of a boat overturned on a dock — and the Gasparilla Mobile Estates neighborhood next door saw some structures with roof, carport, porch and other damage.

Surveying the damage

NWS meteorologist Dan Noah, out of Ruskin, was leaving the Century 21 community in Lee County on Sunday afternoon.

“We’re just beginning the damage survey so we can’t determine a wind speed yet, but it looks like it was over 100 mph,” Noah said while traveling to other damaged communities.

“Right now we’re hitting the big one, the obvious one right now,” Noah said.

John Finelli, a resident of the Tropicana Mobile Home Park searches for belongings after a tornado destroyed his home on Sunday Jan. 16, 2022. His parents were in the home and were transported to the hospital.
John Finelli, a resident of the Tropicana Mobile Home Park searches for belongings after a tornado destroyed his home on Sunday Jan. 16, 2022. His parents were in the home and were transported to the hospital.

He said NWS was trying to determine if one tornado touched several times, or if there were several different twisters.

“There could be more but we’re still trying to determine that,” Noah said.

Noah said NWS looks at 28 factors to determine the strength of a tornado.

“We looked at damage to a manufactured home versus a stick-built home, and then there are different types of tree damage we look at,” he said.

Winds between 73 mph and 112 mph are considered an F1 tornado, which produces moderate damage, according to NWS.

The tornado scale ranges from 40 mph to 318 mph.

Power outages

Storm-related power outages were reported in parts of Southwest Florida

FPL reported as many as 15,000 customers were without electric power in Lee County, 2,588 in Collier County and 659 Charlotte County by mid-morning Sunday.

In other areas, portions of Lehigh Acres, Cape Coral and Pine Island which are served by the Lee County Electric Cooperative, there were also outages reported.

Workers were restoring power throughout the day.

News-Press and Naples Daily News reporters including Liz Freeman and Harriett Heithaus contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Fort Myers weather: 3 tornadoes touchdown, 27 homes destroyed