Half-asleep, I could hear rain drumming on the roof. But it was the sudden roar of wind that woke me up. Outside our bedroom, the palm trees were thrashing, and something metal was clanging in the carport below. Just as the sky lit up with lightning, our cell phones blared. “Tornado warning in your area,” the screen said. “Take shelter now.”
George and I looked at each other. Take shelter? Where? We didn’t have a tornado plan. Since when do tornadoes hit Sarasota? We had a hurricane plan—the good thing about hurricanes is they give you time to make a plan. But this tornado was wailing its way towards us now.
We ran downstairs and turned on ABC7. Meteorologist Bob Harrigan was talking about the spinning red icon on the screen—a waterspout in the Gulf. And it was heading straight towards us. “It’s about 15 minutes from south Siesta Key!” he said. “Take shelter now!”
Instead, we started arguing about where to go. Our house has an open floor plan; there are no interior rooms. There is a bathroom downstairs, but with a window and a big glass shower, I thought it seemed hazardous. And George refused to go into the walk-in closet because it has an exterior wall. Instead of ducking in somewhere—anywhere!—we stood frozen in front of the TV. Maybe we felt Harrigan would somehow keep us safe.
More waterspouts were popping up in the Gulf. “In 30 years of forecasting, I’ve never seen a night like this!” Harrigan said. Now the storm was only a mile offshore. I looked at the cat, purring loudly on the sofa, and tried to imagine that in seconds, that storm could blow our comfortable, well-lit lives to smithereens.
But when I looked at the TV again, I saw it had just come ashore a few miles to our north. The danger was over—at least for us. As we would learn later, a fierce funnel of 132-mph winds had swept roofs off the Excelsior condominiums and raced across the Intracoastal, crushing a $2 million bayfront home. Then it lifted up and sped across the mainland to Manatee County, where it landed again, imploding a mobile home and killing two people inside.
The last time a deadly tornado hit Sarasota County was in 1985, when a pair of twisters killed two people, destroyed 32 homes and damaged 300 businesses in Venice. But tornadoes are not as rare here as I thought, says Sarasota County Emergency Management Chief Ed McCrane. “Florida is one of the top states for tornadoes, and we can get them any month of the year,” he says. “They’re especially likely in El Niño years like this one.” The difference is, most Florida tornadoes are smaller and less powerful than the monsters that decimate large swaths of the Midwest, he explains. “The one that hit Siesta was only 350 yards wide.”
Harrigan had been concerned about El Niño all winter, and when he saw the forecast models before the storm, he told the station manager he expected volatile weather and they’d need a crew and reporters standing by after midnight. He tried to take a nap, but was too keyed up and went to the station at 10 p.m. After tracking information throughout the night, he went live at 2:45 a.m., talking viewers through the next three hours, a marathon performance fueled by adrenaline “and the need to get people information,” he says. “You’re not really thinking about doing it. You’re in the zone.”
And both he and McCrane tell me that next time, George and I need to get into that closet—exterior wall or not. “People on the top floor of the Excelsior condo lost their roof,” McCrane says. “They survived because they got the warning and went into closets and bathrooms.”
A few days later, I drove to the ruins of the house on the Intracoastal. I don’t believe in destiny, but it’s hard not to wonder, when you look at the heap of wood and metal—a cheery red Christmas poinsettia sat unscathed on the doorstep—why this house and not another? Harrigan admits he asks himself that, too, about the Manatee couple who died. “It can be strange when this stuff happens,” he says. “I got an email from someone who lived close by, also in a mobile home. He said he knew how lucky he was to have survived.”