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Preparing for an Active El Niño Season: Tips from the Orange County Office of Emergency Management

Community & Services Public Health & Safety

Warmer waters over the eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator and the resulting influence on the atmosphere indicate a strong, and perhaps historic, El Niño this winter and upcoming spring, according to the Orange County Office of Emergency Management.

What does this mean for Central Floridians? From a meteorological perspective, a direct relationship exists between the presence of a strong El Niño and increased winter storminess in Florida, mainly due to a southward shift in the position of the jet stream over North America. This increased storminess brings greater potential for severe weather with significant impacts.

Past strong El Niño events have been highly correlated with well above normal seasonal storminess across the entire Florida Peninsula between November and April. In fact, the two deadliest tornado outbreaks in state history occurred during El Niño conditions and resulted in the loss of 63 lives collectively. On February 22-23, 1998, there were 42 fatalities in Osceola, Orange and Seminole counties as a result of the F2 and F3 tornadoes that hit Central Florida between 11 p.m. and 2:30 a.m. On February 2, 2007, there were 21 fatalities in Lake and Volusia counties during what is referred to as the Ground Hog Day tornado outbreak.

“We must be prepared for the enhanced risk of severe weather and increased chances for strong-to-violent tornadoes and tornado outbreaks from now through the end of March,” cautioned Keith Kotch, assistant manager at Orange County Office of Emergency Management. “We’ve already visited with meteorologists from local TV stations to discuss what should be included in their weather broadcasts. The goal is to provide the community with accurate information and ample warning if and when severe weather strikes.”

In order to be prepared for severe weather, the Orange County Office of Emergency Management — which handles all hazard preparation and makes sure that the community and first responder teams are ready — recommends the following:

  • Monitor local television and radio for severe weather situations. Such evolving threats are typically identified a few days in advance, with more specific information about the most likely time(s) and location(s) of impact provided one day in advance.
  • Have the ability to receive timely weather warnings. This can save lives, especially with dangerous, nighttime tornadoes.
  • Have a dependable alerting feature or device. Ensure that you have a NOAA Weather Radio (programmed, with fresh batteries) and/or the Wireless Emergency Alert feature on your cell phone (or NWS warnings relayed by text message from Emergency Management or Media, or another reliable app).
  • If a threat for deadly tornadoes exists for your location and you live in a mobile home, RV, or boat, make plans to stay with family or friends. Leave before the severe weather arrives. If you can’t leave, identify the closest sturdy shelter such as a clubhouse or laundry room and go there immediately if a warning is issued for your location.
  • Identify your shelter location and “safe place” in advance of a threat (i.e. small interior room on the lowest floor of your home or business, far from windows); ensure everyone is aware of the location.
  • Words of advice from those who have survived tornadoes include: “putting on your shoes, placing your (charged) cell phone in your pocket, making good use of any kind of helmet and/or pillow to protect your head, and holding tightly on to one another.” These actions must be done quickly and prior to the arrival of the tornado.

“We may not be able to absolutely and precisely predict the weather, however, watching or listening to weather alerts and making arrangements in advance to be in a safe place if severe weather approaches is paramount,” said Kotch. “We know that El Niño conditions are present, so we must do our best to prepare and reduce the risk of injury and property damage.”

Make sure to download OCFL Alert, which is a first-of-its-kind emergency notification and information smartphone app that provides critical information during times of emergency. Life-saving information includes open shelter locations, water and ice distribution centers, evacuation routes, public service announcements and much more. Visit www.ocfl.net for more information.

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