Tornado numbers pile up as meteorologists, FEMA survey in Lee and Collier counties

A team of investigators from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Small Business Administration were due to arrive Tuesday in Lee County for a detailed formal inspection of the damage caused by Sunday's tornado.

The assessment, which will also involve Lee County government, is expected to begin Wednesday morning, officials said. 

"There is tremendous damage. It is isolated in an area near McGregor. Three mobile home parks got the brunt of the damage," said Sandra Tapfumaneyi, public safety director for emergency management. 

Lee County estimates the tornado caused $7.1 million in damage to residential property and $1.2 million to commercial sites.

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Residents of Century 21 in the Iona area embrace after confirmed tornado  touched down in the Iona area.

The EF2 twister that hit the Fort Myers area Sunday was the first since Jan 9, 2016, bringing 118 mph winds to several communities. 

Dozens of mobile homes were destroyed in Iona, and trees were crumpled and twisted along McGregor Boulevard. 

Meteorologists are still tallying the damages, but upward of four tornadoes hit this region Sunday.

A tornado touched down in southern Charlotte County and two in Collier County

A tornado also touched down in southern Charlotte County and two in Collier County, one at the Victoria Falls community built by Habitat for Humanity and another near Everglades City, NWS meteorologists confirmed Tuesday.

Damage was confined mostly to uprooted trees and damaged roofs in Victoria Falls in East Naples, Habitat for Humanity reported Tuesday.

"For the one in Naples, we have kind of a good damage path and determined it was an EF0, close to an EF1, with a peak speed at 85 mph," NWS meteorologist Nick Carr said. "The second tornado was farther south near Everglades City in a much less developed area." 

Collier County crews are still in the field assessing damages, but nothing major has yet been reported, said Bill Fassold, senior public information officer with Collier.

Fassold said the crews were able to clean up a fallen tree on Habitat Road that leads into Victoria Falls and another tree from a pump station in the area. County workers also assisted the Florida Department of Transportation by removing fallen debris in a median on U.S. 41 East.

In Lee County, the communities hit include Point Breeze, Tropicana, and Century 21 mobile home parks.

This tornado tracked for eight miles, Noah said.

"The worst of it was in the three mobile home parks, and after that it crossed McGregor and took out palm tops and took out some trees all the way to the Cape Coral bridge," said Dan Noah, a tornado specialist for the National Weather Service in Ruskin, which covers the Fort Myers-Cape Coral area. "Most are the width of a house and a track of a mile except during the cool season, when the upper level jet stream can help track the tornado for many miles." 

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What about federal assistance

A presidential declaration would need to be requested formally by Gov. DeSantis to receive federal funds.

By determining the impact and magnitude of the damage and what FEMA refers to as the needs of "individuals, businesses, the public sector and the community" the federal agencies form a plan for what type of federal assistance might be available.

Street-by-street pick up of debris left by the storm will begin Thursday morning, according to a briefing provided to county commissioners by Assistant County Manager Glen Salyer at the board's Tuesday meeting.

"Contractors are mobilizing both staff and (their) personnel," Salyer said. "In order for FEMA, DEM and SBA assessment teams to complete their work — they will do that Wednesday  —  we will pick up starting Thursday morning."

Property owners having their own debris hauled away can take it to a county site on A&W Bulb Road, which handled mountains of debris after Hurricane Irma.

Lee County's estimates on the damage as of Tuesday morning were that 44 homes were destroy and are categorized as total losses; 90 homes sustained major damage and 93 had minor damage. One hundred structures were said to have been otherwise affected by the storm.

Those categories are used by the federal government to categorize the degree of damage. 

Major damage is defined by the federal agency as structural damage that requires extensive repair, minor damage means there is repairable non-structural damage and affected means damage is mostly cosmetic.

Marilyn Illetschkom a resident of the Tropicana Mobile Home Park in Fort Myers  searches for belongings after a tornado destroyed her home home on Sunday Jan, 16, 2022.

Local communities have a big role in starting the process of satisfying federal rules for FEMA help.

In Lee County, that started when the tornadoes touched down.

Information about the severity of the damage to homes, most of them trailer park residences, was fed back to the county emergency management officials as first responders arrived at the scene. 

Tapfumaneyi said first responders used an electronic tool for first impression damage assessment.

"The first priority is life safety and they help us get the first wave of information and then our teams can get more detail," Tapfumaneyi said. "That helps us go to the second team from community development and code enforcement officers. They went out based on the first assessment; it was an exhaustive look at all the structures that received damage."

In the meantime, while waiting for the federal government, there is help available in the community.

Faith-based groups and other civic organizations are providing help, Tapfumaneyi said. People needing help should call 211 for information.

'Tornado wind damage is a lot different than hurricane wind damage'

Noah, with the National Weather Service, said he has surveyed a handful of tornadoes in the 15-county area covered by the Ruskin office, and few of them are EF2 or stronger. 

"A lot of the tornadoes are the weaker ones; they're not weak if they hit your house," Noah said. "But to get the bigger tornadoes you need the upper level jet stream to flow over the state, and that only occurs during the cool season." 

Noah said stronger tornadoes are like food processors ripping through a community, while a hurricane will bring heavy winds for 12 hours or more. 

"Tornado wind damage is a lot different than hurricane wind damage," he said. "Tornado wind damage has a relatively small area that's rapidly rotating, in this case up to 118 mph. But that was just around the size of a football field, not that wide. A hurricane can be the size of Texas."  

The scale used to measure tornado strength exceeds 300 mph. 

Jennifer Hubbard, also a meteorologist out of Ruskin, said tornadoes here typically don't stay on the ground for long. 

"It's pretty typical for a tornado to skip and not stay on the ground, unless they're really big ones," she said. "The damage (in Fort Myers) was more sporadic rather than a long, straight line of damage." 

Hubbard said summertime tornadoes are typically even weaker, but tornadoes can also spin off during a hurricane. 

"Our stronger tornadic events typically occur during the cold fronts with stronger dynamics," Hubbard said. "In summer time we have brief spins along the sea breeze boundary, or tropical events in the outer bands." 

Hubbard said Florida's location typically keeps a lid on tornadic activity.

"We don't get the upper level dynamics to get structure for supercell type storms that get to EF3 or stronger," Hubbard said. 

Two tornadoes confirmed in Collier County

In Collier County, a confirmed EF0 tornado travelled roughly 15 miles from the Gulf to Interstate 75 on Sunday.

Carr, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami, said the tornado may have lifted back up briefly, but he was able to confirm it hit the Gulf shoreline and ended up overturning a tractor-trailer truck on I-75.

The tornado moved through mostly uninhabited areas of the county but did cause some damage to homes and trees in Victoria Falls at the south end of Lely Resort.

Lisa Lefkow, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Collier County, said a number of homes were affected and cleanup is ongoing.

“That neighborhood is very cohesive and the neighbors all came together. Chainsaws came out, and they’re helping each other clean up properties and get trees cleared,” Lefkow said.

Some of the trees came down in a nearby preserve, and state law dictates those remain untouched.

Lefkow said there was some roof and shingle damage and damage to lanais.

“These are wonderful folks who live and own Habitat homes that work for roofing companies,” Lefkow said. “They were tarping roofs before the storm warnings were eliminated. One roof had significant damage, and fortunately that family was not home.”

Habitat for Humanity has a list of local vendors and contractors those affected can contact for repairs, Lefkow said. Unfortunately, there are some who come to town knocking on doors selling services before anyone could blink an eye, she said.

“They may lowball prices, but when it doesn’t meet code or can’t get past inspection, they’re suddenly gone,” Lefkow said. “We caution homeowners against things like that and help educate homeowners about being smart when they do any significant work on their homes.”

Lefkow recalled Habitat founder Millard Fuller when he visited Miami after Hurricane Andrew where 28 Habitat homes were located but none were damaged. He attributed it to people going above and beyond with Habitat homes or that Habitat is faith-based, and protection measures could have come from God.

“The same is true from this perspective from Sunday’s events,” Lefkow said. “It’s moments like this we can say our homes are well built and have been put together by hardworking volunteers and homeowners putting in sweat equity, and we’re grateful God continues to look over us.”

Carr, of the NWS, said the second tornado in Collier touched down in a much less developed area near Everglades City, and the agency could confirm only a leaning telephone pole.

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.