Tornado, strong storms destroy dozens of homes in Southwest Florida

·14 min read

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Edward Murray, 81, was in his mobile home at Windcrest and Point Breeze in Cottage Point Trailer Park 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.”

What we know: Powerful tornado destroys dozens of home in Southwest Florida. Here's what we know.

Damage reports: Track damage from Sunday's severe weather here

Scenes from the storm: Videos show storm damage across Fort Myers, Iona, Naples and on Alligator Alley

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, is missing.

By mid-morning, residents across Southwest Florida were taking shelter and heeding multiple tornado warnings stretching from north Collier County and across the gulf coast in Lee County and beyond.

Outage tracker: Power outages reported across Southwest Florida after tornado hits Fort Myers area

5:53 p.m. | Tornado classified as EF2

Today's tornado that ripped apart homes in the Fort Myers area of Lee County was an EF2 tornado with winds at 118 mph, according to the National Weather Service. The National Weather Service has also confirmed the last EF2 or stronger tornado to affect the Lee County area of Southwest Florida was on Jan. 9, 2016.

As far as injuries, at this time Lee County officials say four were injured but there are no details about serious or minor injuries.

118 mph winds: NWS: EF2 tornado touched down in Southwest Florida. Here's what that means.

3:23 p.m. | Latest power outage numbers for SWFL

Information from Florida Power and Light indicated that by 3 p.m. there were 2,086 customers in Lee County and 241 in Collier County still without power. There were 141 customers in Charlotte County waiting to be reconnected.

LCEC, the Lee County Electric Cooperative, reported no customer without service in Lee County.

2:32 p.m. | Lee County addresses storm impact

One county assessment rated 27 homes destroyed, 24 with major damage, and 14 with minor damage. County Commission Chairman Cecil Pendergrass later told reporters that 62 of the homes in the tornado’s path were unlivable as a result of the tornado.

“We have damage assessment teams in the area, first to compile information on the extent of the damaged structures,” Pendergrass said during a mid-afternoon news conference.

Some of the people who can’t return to their homes until repairs are made were being taken by LeeTran vehicles to a shelter at Wa-Ke Hatchee Park in Fort Myers.

“We will coordinate resources to meet the immediate needs, we are working with the Red Cross,” Pendergrass said.

After such sudden and complete destruction of their homes, some homeowners, assisted by neighbors, friends and the kind-hearted began clean-up work, but Pendergrass suggested they might want to wait until an insurance adjuster gets a look at the damage.

“That is something that homeowners have to look at, should we leave this until the adjuster can get here to see it or should we put it in the street; that’s up to the homeowner, (the county) cannot go on the property,” Pendergrass said. “Personally, I would wait until I get something from the insurance before I start a taking the roof off my house or removing the carport off my trainer and so forth.”

County solid waste disposal service contractors will work its under the normal Monday-Friday schedule; the county’s private waste contractors, Waste Pro and Waste Management, do not skip working on the Dr. Martin Luther King Junior holiday.

2:15 p.m. | Church services continue throughout possible tornado in Everglades City

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.

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.

More from Sunday services: 'We just looked at our phones and kept singing'

1:55 p.m. | Charlotte County sees some storm damage

The morning’s 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 made 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.

Sunday morning's storm caused damage at some mobile home parks in Charlotte County.
Sunday morning's storm caused damage at some mobile home parks in Charlotte County.

12:55 p.m. | NWS beginning damage assessment surveys, suspects wind speeds over 100 mph

NWS meteorologist Dan Noah, out of Ruskin, was leaving the Century 21 community early 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 miles per hour,” Noah said while traveling to other damaged communities.

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

He said NWS was trying to determine if one tornado touched group 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 exact 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 miles per hour and 112 miles per hour are considered an F1 tornado, which produces moderate damage, according to NWS.

The tornado scale ranges from 40 miles per hour to 318 miles per hour.

12:45 p.m. | Lee County: 27 buildings destroyed

Lee County is reporting that 27 building were destroyed by this morning storms, including 24 with major damage and 14 with minor damage. We have a reporter at the Lee County Emergency Operations Center for a Lee County press conference.

12:21 p.m. | Red Cross assisting families in need

Volunteers from the American Red Cross Florida Gulf Coast to Heartland Chapter have been coordinating with emergency officials to respond to the severe weather and tornado damage in Fort Myers.

The Red Cross is working closely with emergency officials to support one shelter, providing the impacted families a safe place to stay and determine further assistance needed.

The Red Cross will continue to monitor the evolving situation and work closely with local officials to determine any further needs in the community.

Red Cross volunteers have been trained to follow proper safety procedures and protocols to continue serving communities impacted by local disasters during this global health crisis.

Families in our community, across the country and around the world turn to the Red Cross every day for help because #EmergenciesDontStop. Neighbors still need food, shelter and care after disasters; and military families still need support. Your help is needed to fulfill the urgent needs of our mission today, visit redcross.org/SouthFlorida.

HOW PEOPLE CAN TAKE ACTION:

  • Make a financial donation to their local Red Cross to help people affected by home fires and other disasters in the United States and around the world. Visit redcross.org/donate.

  • Visit redcross.org/tornadoes to find safety tips and how to yourself and loved ones from tornadoes.

  • Become a Red Cross volunteer by applying at redcross.org/sflvolunteer.

  • Download the Red Cross Emergency App by visiting redcross.org/apps or texting 'GETEMERGENCY' to 90999. This all-inclusive app combines more than 35 emergency alerts to help keep the user safe. And the Monster Guard mobile app is specially designed for kids, teaching them to prepare for emergencies at home by playing an engaging game.

12:15 p.m. | Collier County reports at least one tornado touching down

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 but no damage that he could find. That was around 9:30. “There was no damage, just some debris.”

He had not heard of any damage anywhere else in Collier.

A sheriff’s deputy was sent to the Hitching Post mobile home community near Barefoot Williams Road and US 41 E. but did not get back of any damage there.

11:50 a.m. | Sheriff, fire official talk about response

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

"We had a significant weather event this morning which allowed us to respond quickly and pool our rescours4e," Aqui said.

He said there were no fatalities reported among the homes that had been severely damaged or destroyed. A number of people had been taken to area hospitals, he confirmed, but the types and extent of injuries were not yet known."

He said the area mostly hit was the John Morris Road and McGregor Boulevard area 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.

Marceno stressed that residents who were not hurt and had homes relatively intact should remain at their residences and not venture out.

"I want to tell the residents of this county ... understand, have a little bit of patience. IF you don't have to leave your house, don't leave your house just to look around," the sheriff said.

He 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.

11:16 a.m. | Power outages update

Florida Power and Light reports that 15,000 customers are without power. An FPL spokesman says crews are working to restore power, but the company does not have a current estimate of when electricity will be restored to all customers.

11:11 a.m. | What the National Weather Service is saying

Meteorologist form the National Weather Service in Ruskin are on their way to the Iona area to assess the damage so they can better understand the dynamics of the tornado.

“Intensity, track and all that is to be determined, and we have meteorologists headed down there now to assess the damage,” said Stephen Shiveley, with NWS in Ruskin, which covers the Fort Myers-Cape Coral area. “We’ve done lots of studies over the years and to determine intensity we need to see the damage. We’ll be able to estimate the actual wind speed from that.”

The Century 21 Mobile Home Community in Iona was hit the hardest, Shiveley said.

But that wasn’t the only tornado of the morning.

“We had a couple of tornados in the Tampa area and we got severe winds up into the 50s with gusts,” he said. “Gaspiralla Mobile Estates (in Charlotte County) was hit hard and we’re pretty confident that was a tornado too.”

The weather was still strong in Collier County at 10:30 Sunday morning.

George Rizzuto works at the Miami NWS station, which covers the Naples-Collier area, and he said meteorologists there would soon be in the Naples area.

A tornado was reported on various social media near Mile Marker 100 along Interstate 75.

“We did have radar indicating a tornado, and we’ve seen some reports but we need to go out and do actual damage surveys to see if there are tornados on the ground,” Rizzuto said. “We did some see some.”

Rizzuto said meteorologists from Miami will soon visit the Naples area to assess damages there.

“Right now we’re working on finding the damaged areas and then we’ll send someone out in the next couple of hours,” he said.

Meteorologists last week said this front could turn into a strong one, but it doesn’t seem they were expecting multiple tornadoes.

“It is a relatively strong front, and along the western coast we did see some aligning of the ingredients,” Rizzuto said. “It was a perfect storm along the west coast for some tornadic activity.”

10:50 a.m. | Tornado damage in Iona and Fort Myers is being investigated

The National Weather Service had issued the first tornado warning just before 8 a.m.

At the trailer park, workers were boarding up homes and putting plywood as sheriff’s deputies roam through the area. A number of structures have visible damage.

The National Weather Service confirmed a tornado that touched down in Iona in Fort Myers.

By 9:15 a.m., several portions of north Collier County also had tornado warnings. A warning means that a tornado has been confirmed in that area.

A National Weather Service forecaster in Tampa, Stephen Shiveley, said Southwest Florida had an "active weather situation" with a tornado warning in Lee County about 9 a.m. and extending throughout the morning.

He said "something just came ashore."

8:00 a.m. | Tornado warnings followed soon by "significant" Fort Myers-area storm damage

Earlier, about 8 a.m. residents in Southwest Florida were greeted with a series of strong storms in advance of a strong cold front moving into the region.

There have been TV reports of "significant" damage in some areas with "rotation" on and off shore.

Near the Murrays' trailer, other residents sustained minor damage.

Jeff Funchion lives across from Murray, and the trailer sustained 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.

A screen shot of our interactive weather radar on Saturday afternoon.
A screen shot of our interactive weather radar on Saturday afternoon.

It is a fast-moving system and the damage appears to be taking place in small "pockets" as it moves through Southwest Florida.

Lee County emergency officials were evacuating Tropicana Park, built in 1970, with 470 homesites serving a 55+ community,

According to Florida Power and Light, Lee County had 15,374 people without power at 9:45 a.m. and Collier County had 1,364.

Florida Highway Patrol said a tornado upended and flipped a semi tractor-trailer truck on  Interstate 75 at westbound 96 mile marker  in Collier County on Sunday morning.  The lanes soon reopened.
Florida Highway Patrol said a tornado upended and flipped a semi tractor-trailer truck on Interstate 75 at westbound 96 mile marker in Collier County on Sunday morning. The lanes soon reopened.

Florida Highway Patrol reported a tornado flipped a semi tractor-trailer truck on its side, blocking traffic in Collier County at westbound 96 mile marker on 1-75, temporarily closing the lanes.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers spotted the tornado at 9:34 a.m. traveling east toward Golden Gate

They reported minor injuries from the crash.

Troopers are on scene and one travel lane remains open.

This is a developing story. Stay with news-press.com and naplesnews.com for continuing coverage. We will have video and photos of the damage throughout the day.

Power outages

Storm related power outages have been reported in parts of Southwest Florida

FPL reports that 12,348 customers were without electric power in Lee County, 2,588 in Collier County and 659 Charlotte County

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

A total of 266 LCEC customers were reported to be without power, the most significant areas were reported in northeast Cape Coral and in Pine Island, with the most significant damage in Bokelia on the northern end of the island.

Please send tips or photos for print purposes to SWFLBreakingNews@gannett.com

This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: Tornado hits Fort Myers, Naples, Cape Coral Bonita Springs