StormReady: Lessons learned from last year’s tornado

When the tornado ripped through the Sun ’n Fun grounds last year, it took a lot of people by surprise — and ensuring that never happens again became a top priority for the fly-in’s new president, John “Lites” Leenhouts.

“When I got here I asked how prepared they were for the storm,” he said in the days before this year’s show. “And they acknowledged they were not as prepared as they should have been.”

John "Lites" Leenhouts

So Leenhouts and the rest of the Sun ’n Fun staff took a “professional” approach to the problem, realizing that while being prepared for inclement weather is a priority, the No. 1 priority is notifying the general public of changes in the weather.

So Sun ’n Fun staff worked with officials with the local fire and police departments, as well as the NOAA’s National Weather Service, to devise a plan to monitor the weather and notify all guests as to any changes.

The Sun ’n Fun campus is now designated StormReady by the National Weather Service, which means the event organizers have the skills and education needed to survive severe weather —before and during the event.

Among the steps taken to achieve the StormReady status, Sun ’n Fun now has:

  • Three locations for NOAA Weather Radios;
  • Safe Shelter Areas for each geographic area of the event grounds to comply with Sun ’n Fun’s “Tornado and High Wind Safety Zone Designation;”
  • Alternative methods of receiving National Weather Service warnings, including local TV and radio and Internet weather sources;
  • Methods for alerting staff, guests and participants, as well as alternative means if the electricity is off;
  • Methods to provide special assistance to handicapped staff and participants;
  • Pre-planned announcements for the SUN ’n FUN announcer, radio station and safety officers to avoid confusion and misunderstanding; and
  • Processes to notify all concerned as the weather conditions and/or emergency passes.

“Every day we will assess the weather patterns and how we will keep the public appraised of them,” Leenhouts said. “Our primary goal is to keep everybody advised of what is occurring before it occurs.”

He notes that there has been enough study of weather to be able to make pretty accurate predictions. “I can’t tell you how strong the storm is going to be, but I can tell you there’s going to be a thunderstorm in the next hour or hail or a tornado,” he said.

An important lesson that Sun ’n Fun officials learned is that when the National Weather Service says there is a 10% chance of a tornado, “that means there is going to be a tornado and there’s a 10% chance that it is going to be where you are,” Leenhouts said, noting that was a surprise to him and other officials, who thought — like most of us — that a 10% chance meant there was a 90% chance that there wouldn’t be a tornado.

In the months before this week’s airshow, Sun ’n Fun staff and volunteers performed a variety of drills to familiarize everyone with the StormReady process.



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