Twister of rare power shreds Florida neighborhood

Posted Oct. 19, 2011, at 9:19 p.m.

SUNRISE, Fla. — It flung trees across streets, twisted metal awnings into pretzels, peeled roofs like orange skins and turned a hot tub into a Frisbee.

Tornadoes are fairly common in South Florida but one as powerful as the twister that battered 50 homes in South Florida on Tuesday night ranks as a once-a-decade rarity. The National Weather Service estimated its wind speeds as high as 120 mph, roughly equal to a Category 3 hurricane.

The only injuries were minor but homeowners along the tornado’s one-mile swath through Sunrise and Plantation neighborhoods were stunned by the extensive damage.

In the front yard of Hugo de Ferrari’s two-story peach-colored home, a huge tree engulfed his black Hummer. It had been ripped out of a yard two houses down.

“I have a Jacuzzi in my backyard,” he said, as he snapped pictures under still-gray skies Wednesday. “I don’t know where it came from, but it’s there now.”

Vivi Yom Tov Assidon, standing in front of his roofless red brick home in a Sunrise subdivision, said he “felt lucky to be alive.”

Assidon had been in his bedroom while his wife and sister-in-law flipped channels between “The X Factor” and “Dancing with the Stars” when a news flash indicated a tornado warning for nearby Davie.

“It’s nothing,” he said he thought, “Let me go get my ice cream.” But as he walked to the kitchen, there was a huge boom and “everything started falling apart on top of me.

“I look up and I see nothing. It was black.”

Robert Molleda, a weather service meteorologist who was part of a team that surveyed the damage, said the tornado rated an EF2 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, a measure of twister strength that runs from a weak EF0 to a catastrophic EF6.

“It was a strong tornado, period,” he said. “For South Florida, it was something very strong. Maybe we’ll have one or two a decade.”

Though infamous for hurricanes, South Florida also see its share of tornadoes, often several a year. Most are relatively weak and short-lived, but there are periodic exceptions, like the EF2 tornado in 2003 that pummeled neighborhoods in Brownsville and Liberty City, killing a man and causing millions of dollars in damage.

The twister, and another weaker one reported in Glades County, were both spawned by an intense “super cell” in a squall line that raked South Florida as a big, wet low-pressure system streaming up from the Gulf of Mexico collided with a cold front marching down from the north.

The mix of atmospheric instability and strong wind shear aloft provided plenty of energy for tornadoes, Molleda said. The weather service had put most of South Florida on tornado watch Tuesday night and issued area warnings throughout the night.

Molleda said the tornado initially touched down deep in the Everglades, but then spun up again and hit the neighborhoods around 10:07 p.m.

The service’s preliminary report found the twister cut a 125-yard-wide, 1.1-mile-long path, with winds of 95 to 110 mph along most of the way before ramping up to 120 mph. It touched down t in Plantation and let up in Sunrise.

Twenty-five homes in each city were damaged, about a dozen seriously. Sunrise building officials deemed six too badly damaged for owners to stay. Two mobile homes were also largely destroyed.

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