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Did National Weather Service miss signs of tornado threat?

'Yesterday, the setup was complicated, and it didn't really favor tornadoes,' NWS meteorologist Will Ulrich says
Posted at 6:49 PM, Jan 16, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-16 18:57:02-05

MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. — An hour and a half before the first tornado touched down in Martin County, the National Weather Service was calling for a storm that could produce funnel clouds in counties north of the Treasure Coast in Central Florida.

So, did the National Weather Service miss the signs that a tornado was about to hit Palm City and Stuart?

The NWS often issues a public warning several hours before a storm is expected to hit, using a phrase like "conditions are favorable for the development of tornadoes."

However, that didn't happen Monday.

"Yesterday was one of those very difficult situations where the ingredients came together in an extremely small area," Will Ulrich, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Office in Melbourne, said.

Ulrich's office is responsible for issuing warnings to the Treasure Coast.

National Weather Service meteorologist Will Ulrich discusses the difficult of forecasting tornadoes.
National Weather Service meteorologist Will Ulrich discusses the difficult of forecasting tornadoes.

Several hours before the tornadoes hit Martin County, the NWS office in Melbourne's Facebook page forecast said "Cloudy skies continue today, with high rain chances in the forecast. Showers will increase through the afternoon with isolated storms also possible."

There was no mention of possible tornadoes.

At 3:32, a little more than an hour before the first tornado touched down, the NWS wrote in communication to emergency management and local media that "shower and storm forecast has verified flawlessly."

It also added that "frequent lightning is occurring with a cell in Osceola and Brevard counties, with very broad rotation which could produce funnel clouds."

However, those counties are well north of where Monday's tornado occurred in Martin County.

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For the Treasure Coast, it wrote, "expect heavy downpours, continued lightning and gusty winds up to 40 mph for areas south of Orlando towards the Treasure Coast."

"There was no mention of conditions favorable for tornadoes and this was an hour and 10 minutes before the first tornado touched down. Please put it into perspective for me," WPTV investigative reporter Dave Bohman asked Ulrich.

"Yesterday, the setup was complicated, and it didn't really favor tornadoes," Ulrich said. "The fact was the environment as a whole over the state did not favor severe weather. To put it in perspective, the event that took place in Palm City and Stuart, that tornado, was the only event in the entire state when it came to severe weather yesterday."

"Is it fair to say tornadoes are the most difficult weather events to pinpoint, the time and the place?" Bohman asked.

"One hundred percent," Ulrich said.

Ulrich said the National Weather Service will review the data from Monday in the hours leading up to the tornado, and determine if the agency could have issued tornado watches or warnings sooner or if it did the best it could with the data available.

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