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Meteorologist and storm chaser Jaclyn Whittal details what happened when a tornado warning was issued near her vacationing in-laws in Florida.

Here's what happened when a tornado struck near my family

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Jaclyn Whittal
Meteorologist

Sunday, January 10, 2016, 1:22 PM - My in-laws are having a grand ol’ time at the RV park in Naples, Florida, at Club Naples. My father-in-law is entertaining his retired friends with his guitar after a great BBQ in the Florida heat. Up the street in Cape Coral people have lost their homes. 

What a contrast. What a wake up call. What if?

As a seasoned storm chaser I asked these questions all the time. What if? For example, a storm to our west decides to drop a tornado and a similar storm to the east rotates like a top but doesn’t produce anything. Tornadoes are unpredictable still, despite how much we know about them and how beneficial our many RADAR tools have become. Mother Nature seems to lead.

At 7:15 p.m. EST, looking through my Twitter feed, I caught a notice from the National Weather Service that there was a tornado warning for Cape Coral and Fort Meyers. My thoughts turned to my in-laws only a half hour south of that warning.

"It’s just humid here right now, nothing so far but we will keep an eye on things. We have no TV right now, but we’ll watch for your texts," they said. “I got you covered guys,” I said. But do I? Can I get them to shelter safely in time if a storm decided to roll overtop of them in an RV park? I was going to do my best from far away.

Pictures then came out about an hour later of Cape Coral. The damage was really bad, many homes torn apart. Cars and trucks flipped upside down in people’s living rooms. I’ve seen this too often, I thought they must have no basements or shelters. Hopefully there were no fatalities.

Winds were gusting with the storm itself up to 96 km/h and the heavy downpours caused localized flooding. There were over 9,000 people without power across southwestern Florida by 11 p.m. The storms were at night which is always more serious because we are all generally in our cozies watching TV and settled in.

I saw another line cell that went tornado warned shortly after that within the hour, my in-laws still socializing with friends at the community center at Club Naples. It was then I decided to suggest they get in the car before the next strong storm made its approach. 

This one was not tornado warned but was showing rotation in it. They drove to a local Walmart and it was closed. I told them to drive to the Cracker Barrel as I knew it would be the best structured building around. 

How’s the weather now as they arrived? “Really Bad” they texted back.

I explained that the reason I made them drive away from the RV park was because I saw some major damage from Cape Coral and that it was the safest thing to do IN CASE. 

The storm passed with gusts up to 80 km/h and heavy rain and hail. They drove back to our RV and luckily, no damage was done to the RV or more importantly, to them. I breathed in and felt a big relief.

In January the tornado average for Florida is 3. It only takes one. A 14-square-mile area where people live in Cape Coral would tell you the same. 

They spent the night in a local middle school shelter. They too could have been strumming a guitar at the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, they are humming a different tune all together.

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