Tornado leaves damages in excess of $1 million

OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County was lucky the April 4 tornado hit in the morning, when most of the homes hit were vacant, County Emergency Operations manager Mitch Smeykal told Okeechobee County Commissioners at their April 13 meeting.

If the EF-2 tornado had hit during the night, lives might been lost, he said.
The tornado hit Kissimmee Prairie State Park at 9:20 a.m. on April 4, according to the National Weather Service Doppler radar.

Mr. Smeykal said the damage in the park is believed to be from a straight line wind down draft with an estimated speed of 80 mph.

Three vehicles — an RV, a travel trailer and a pickup truck — were damaged. One woman who was in the trailer when the storm hit was seriously injured.

The tornado left the park at 9:55 a.m. according to the National Weather Service.

The tornado traveled 13 miles from the park to the Ranchettes area in about 12 minutes, Mr. Smeykal said.

The twister was going up and coming down according to the Doppler signatures, he said.

“From some of the photos we have seen, it looked more like EF-3 when it first hit, then it dropped down to EF-2,” he said.

EF-2 is 115 mph, comparable to a Category 3 hurricane wind speed, Mr. Smeykal explained.

Three residences were destroyed, he said. Another had major damage. Fifteen others had some damage.

Two homes completely ripped off their frames, either picked up and dropped or picked up and tossed around.

He said early estimates are around $200,000 in structure damage. Two people were injured; there were no deaths. Considering the damages to vehicles and the contents of the homes that were destroyed, total loss is probably more than $1 million, he explained.

He said no animals were injured. One dog and two cats had been reported missing after the storm, but all have been found, he said.

Some of those impacted by the tornado do not have insurance, he said. Fort Drum Community Church is coordinating donations and volunteer help.

Anyone who would like to help the tornado victims is encouraged to call the church at 863-467-1733.

He said as hurricane season approaches, all county residents are encouraged to make sure their insurance is up to date.

He said when there is only a small area affected by a natural disaster, there is no state or federal help available.

“There is a false assumption that the state or federal will help,” he said.
Later in the meeting, commissioners debated what to do about debris cleanup on private property.

Residents are asking what to do with storm debris.

Commissioner Bryant Culpepper said this could be a life safety issue. The debris could be a danger to other residents if it is not cleaned up before hurricane season, he said.

John Cassels said the county has a provision in the code for cleaning up what is determined to be a public health issue. He said the county could also declare a state of emergency.

He suggested setting up a GoFundMe.com account to raise money to help the residents.

David Hazellief said he would support the county paying the extra expense for Waste Management to pick up the debris.

“We need to do something to help those people up there, we just don’t want to open up Pandora’s box,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread. He said he is concerned about setting a precedent using county funds to clean up private property.

Commissioner Kelly Owens asked if the county could contract with a disposal company to remove the debris from right-of-way. According to the bids on file, that would be less expensive than adding the expense to the Waste Management contract.

The commissioners agreed to let the county administrator find the least expensive option to remove the storm debris from the county right-of-way, with approval for expense of up to $150,000 without the delay of bringing it back to the board. The funds will come from the county reserves.

In other business at the Thursday commission meeting, county attorney John

Cassels recommended the county extend the medical marijuana moratorium for an additional 6 months “to allow for whatever the state does in this Legislative session.”

Mr. Cassels said that instead of going through the exercise of adopting local ordinances or regulations, only to have the legislature make the county rules obsolete, the county should wait until the state rules are finalized. There were no comments from the public.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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