Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sun 'n Fun becoming Flood 'n Mud

I'm sitting in my hotel room in Winter Haven, watching the Doppler radar and the "live, continuous coverage" on the ABC news out of Tampa. Right now it's bright, though not sunny, through my hotel window. But there is apparently a tornado on the ground less than twenty miles north of here. I can see the sky is especially ominous-looking in that direction. Everything immediately north of I-4 is a mess, according to the TV and the internet. So far, Lakeland Linder airport and Winter Haven, where I am, are relatively safe. But this is the latest radar pic:

How lovely. It's looking pretty grim. I used to live in Florida so I am somewhat conditioned to this stuff. I can only hope that everyone at Sun 'n Fun is glued to whatever mobile internet devices they have out there.

At 9:41 am it looks like Lakeland Linder Regional Airport has been spared by the first cell. The tail end of it caught the float plane Splash-In at Lake Agnes (immediately south of Polk City), hopefully the tornado stayed well north of there.

Quick dash to Publix. Beer time!

It's now 10:30 and quite obvious, based purely on the radar tracks of the front coming in off the Gulf of Mexico, that there will be no flying today at Sun 'n Fun. My plan for the day was to head up to the Splash-In at Lake Agnes. That won't be happening either. It looks like they caught the edge of the first set of storms to come through at about 9:30. But the forecast looks worse than it did at 9 am. There is a large red blob just off the beach at Tampa/St. Pete. It's predicted to hit there in about twenty minutes, then track right on across Lakeland and mid-Florida for about 11:30.

We notice a few light aircraft buzzing low overhead, most headed southeast (towards the sunshine) though one seems to be going into Gilbert Field just up the road north of downtown Winter Haven. Hope he's got a hangar! Everyone is being smart, keeping just a few hundred feet AGL. No need to go higher around here when the serious-looking clouds suggest turbulence and possibly wind shear well below 2,000 AGL. (I check the weather at KLAL and am surprised to see it reporting a ceiling of 3,500. Did they switch from feet to centimeters recently?)

With not much else left to do, my dad and I decide to make a quick dash to Publix a mile down the road, to stock up with some food and beer for the day. (Eight years in Florida taught me that when stormy weather approaches and you don't have time to evacuate, drink!) With the fridge well stocked we can get back to the serious business of watching the live TV coverage and updating the internet weather reports. It still looks quite bright if cloudy out the window. Mark one eyeballs don't have quite the perspicacity of Doppler radar in these circumstances, however.

A woman in the Publix parking lot comments on how low this one Bonanza is flying as it passes over us. I fill her in on the weather situation. She wonders why I've come here from California for this. I briefly wonder the same thing. But then again it's been raining incessantly for the past two months in NorCal!

Here it comes!

The second wave isn't too bad, basically a few minutes of moderately heavy rain and gusty winds of maybe 30-40 mph. That's what we call "afternoon" on a summer's day in Florida. Pretty typical. But, the big red blob has now landed on Tampa/St. Pete and another couple of tornadoes have been spotted just north of there. Luckily for those of us inland, however, it looks like the energy is dissipating over land and the tornadoes are disappearing pretty quickly. There is still plenty of lightning and there will be 60-70 mph winds to deal with, even if they aren't vortices. Besides, the remnants of the big red blob are heading directly for Sun 'n Fun at Lakeland.

Lakeland Linder cops it

The satellite TV signal just went out, the lights are flickering with the near continuous lightning, and the sky outside the window is sort of a greenish gray. When the first cell hit north of I-4 just after 9 am the lightning was being recorded by the Tampa radar station at a rate of 11,000 (yes, eleven thousand) strikes an hour, and it only detects in a radius of 124 nm. That's a lot of electricity out there. Infinitely more than there is in here presently, as the power just went out.

Now it's basically black/green out the window here in Winter Haven and the rain is pummeling the concrete. All manner of debris is blowing past. Time to move deep into the room in case the tornado that has been spotted on and off decides to track this way. There are a couple of significant differences between Florida tornadoes and those in the Midwest. In Florida they may be a lot smaller but they are also very often invisible, buried in thick cloud and walls of rain. There's a continual background rumble of thunder right now, too. But I'm still getting internet! Sweet! Blog on...

This cell just tracked right over Lakeland on its way to Winter Haven. The Lakeland Linder airport is right under the purple splotch:

A break, sort of

Now that the big cell has passed us by, the forecast for the rest of the afternoon is light to moderate rain and thunder occasionally. Basically, crappy. The power is back on and some of the TV stations are back on the air. A broadcast tower must have been hit by lightning; all the local channels are off air.

Since the most severe weather seems to be over, as confirmed by the Tampa radar, we decide to take a quick trip up to Lake Agnes and then on to Lakeland Linder to offer our services as cleanup crew. We don't have very much else useful to do. The beers can wait a while.

At Lake Agnes there are three cars and one official, the sum total of activity. We quickly get confirmation that the place is closed for the day. No damage is reported here, but the way the official says the words it's quite clear the implication is that there's been damage at Lakeland Linder. Besides, there are dozens more planes exposed at KLAL - unless they all evacuated at about 10:30. Then there are hundreds of campers, too. We decide we'll head over to KLAL and see if they are ready to begin cleaning up.

It's raining for the drive from Polk City to Lakeland. A few wind gusts but nothing bad now. There are as many emergency vehicles on the road as cars, it seems. Not too much damage of trees and structures, just an occasional pile of debris or an old tree pushed over. Several traffic lights are out though. My dad, a visiting Englishman, comments at just how orderly everyone is treating the intersections. In the absence of traffic lights they turn into instant four-way stops, everybody being very gracious. We consider the carnage that would happen in England in a similar situation. Actually, that's not true. Everyone would simply stop at the intersection and wait for several hours until an official of some sort told them what to do.

We do pass a couple of accidents, one poor fellow looks like he hydroplaned out of control on a straight section of road, ended up parked on his side. But there's already a police car on the scene. We press on. We decide that our stock answer to any questions regarding our personal safety, if asked why it is we're out and about after a major storm, will be deflected thus: "It's okay, it's a rental car."

Mud, glorious mud

There isn't that much traffic trying to get out of Lakeland Linder; we can see a few cars already stuck in the parking area that has turned to mud. We stop briefly to ask a couple of sheriff's deputies doing traffic control whether there's a marshaling point for cleanup volunteers, but it's quite clear cleaning up isn't yet on the list. They are simply trying to get people out of the parking area with another storm system making its way towards us. And without duck boards, a tow hitch and rope, a shovel or anything vaguely useful in our compact rental car, we decide that we'd be getting in the way at this point. Cleaning up won't be starting til early evening or with first light tomorrow morning. We'll come back.

So it's back to the hotel room for those beers. The good news: it doesn't look like any tornadoes touched down around Lakeland Linder. But we get back to find the TV back on in the hotel room, and the Weather Channel is already reporting that several light aircraft have been turned over at KLAL. Sad. Fortunately only minor injuries reported.

I guess there's no way to protect all those planes outside in 60+ mph winds, and evacuating all the planes in the quiescent 90 minutes after the first storms clobbered north of I-4 would have been near impossible, too, even if the forecast had been 100% accurate at 9 am. There were a few dozen warbirds parked along Rwy 5-23, in addition to the dozens of planes in the exhibition areas and, of course, the hundreds of privately owned fly-in planes. Launching two a minute wouldn't have got the job done in time. And to where?? Without a plan??? No, it would have been a case of battening down and riding it out with fingers crossed.

What will happen tomorrow is anyone's guess. We'll just have to hope that when the rain finally stops - another dose of heavy rain and lightning hitting Winter Haven at 4:30 - the mess won't be too hard to clear. The parking lot is total mud though. I don't see that being anything but a quagmire tomorrow even if the forecast is CAVU, albeit with gusty winds. The planes might be flying, but I think the mission just changed at Sun 'n Fun. I'm going to drink the first beer to the hope that all the home-builts got through it unscathed. It's so sad to think of the thousands of hours of people's lives and the dreams that could be in splinters.

Time for another beer and an early dinner for an early night, in case there's use for a couple of able-bodied Limeys to shovel mud or whatever tomorrow morning out at KLAL. Not the trip that we'd planned, but then that's aviation for you!

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