Remembering the Groundhog Day Storm of 1998
A record of weather observations in the Florida Keys spanning many decades reveals widespread severe weather episodes to be rare, usually occurring in association with tropical storms or hurricanes, during the summer and autumn months. However, on occasion, the polar jet stream and associated mid-latitude storm track have penetrated far enough south over the Gulf of Mexico with sufficient intensity, to unleash violent winter cyclones with damaging impacts to the island communities of the Florida Keys. Such was the case on February 2, 1998.
The Florida Groundhog Day storm of 1998 originated from an extra-tropical cyclone that developed over the southwestern Gulf of Mexico on February 1, moved northeastward, and intensified beneath a strong subtropical jet stream and vigorous trough in the upper atmosphere. The rapid intensification of the low pressure system across the southeastern Gulf of Mexico resulted in southerly winds accelerating to gale force across southern Florida and Cuba. Observations from the automated weather station at Sand Key (southwest of Key West) revealed 22 consecutive hours with winds gusting over 30 knots, from 11:00 p.m. EST on February 1 through 8:00 p.m. February 2. Winds were sustained from the southeast for most of this time, allowing wave action in Hawk Channel to pile up water along the southern shores of the Florida Keys, resulting in overwash and coastal flooding. Finally, severe thunderstorms broke out along a northward-moving warm front over the Straits of Florida. These severe thunderstorms subsequently moved northeastward across the Florida Keys, spawning two tornadoes, large hail, and wind damage. Tornadoes were reported on Grassy Key near mile marker 56.5, and in Islamorada near mile marker 80. Golf-ball sized hail was reported in Marathon. A wind gust of 103 knots (118 mph) was recorded at the automated weather station in Florida Bay north of Long Key.
Following the severe thunderstorms, the winds shifted south, and the gales subsided. Winds shifted southwest the next day, as the intensifying low pressure system moved north-northeastward.
Winds did not shift northwest until February 4. In any case, the damage was done, and a severe subtropical winter weather event was in the books.
Locally, the combination of gale-force winds, numerous severe thunderstorms, and two tornadoes resulted in widespread damage across the Florida Keys (Storm Data, 1998: vol 40, no.2). One death was attributed to the storm: a man, 35, crushed between his boat and a dock on Stock Island during strong winds. Several injuries also were reported, mainly due to flying glass. Trees, power lines, light poles, and traffic lights were downed at many locations between Key Largo and Key West. One house was completely destroyed, and 23 homes and several businesses were damaged. At Key West International Airport, two small planes and one Monroe County Sheriff’s Office helicopter were overturned. Coastal flooding occurred as well. Highway A1A in Key West was closed due to wave action as early as 7:00 a.m. At least two boats washed up on to South Roosevelt Boulevard in Key West. Boats were capsized and docks were damaged throughout the Keys. A support buoy for an underwater laboratory was dislodged and drifted ashore. U.S. Coast Guard Group Key West received more than 300 calls, and ran 75 search and rescue missions on February 2–3, including 13 cases at the same time (Key West Citizen, 3 Feb 1998, storm ed.). Extensive damage occurred to the commercial fishing industry, primarily from the loss of lobster and crab traps.
Seventeen years later, the weather prediction models have improved dramatically, and we are running a high-resolution nearshore wave prediction system which shows promise. Doppler radar recently was upgraded to incorporate dual polarization technology, and the effectiveness of a well-trained and experienced warning meteorologist utilizing Doppler radar to identify potentially severe local storms is well documented. One of the most notable advances in the world of weather forecasting recently has been the ability to present and communicate information quickly and effectively through the use of web sites, smartphone apps, and social media. If a storm like the Florida Groundhog Day Storm of 1998 were to occur today, there is no doubt that its arrival would be preceded by considerable activity in the weather media (a la #GroundhogDayStorm).
Remember to check the weather before heading out on the water, and as always, be weather-ready, and stay safe!
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