A possible tornado ripped through the SUN ’n FUN grounds Thursday afternoon, damaging airplanes, uprooting trees, tearing down exhibits, and sending folks rushing to find shelter in the hangars, museum, Buehler Restoration Center, and other secure buildings.
Thankfully, there were only a few minor injuries, according to SUN ’n FUN officials who used SUN ’n FUN Radio and volunteers to get the word out to exhibitors and attendees to seek shelter before the storm hit around 2 p.m.
About 40 planes were damaged by the storm, according to SUN ’n FUN spokesman Jim Bernegger. “Some are upside down and others are mangled,” he reported.
All the hangars were in good shape, despite early reports that a building had partially collapsed, trapping 70 people inside. No one is sure how that rumor got started, but it got widespread play, with reports in the national media, including CNN. “That is false,” Bernegger said.
There was significant damage to the campgrounds and throughout the exhibit grounds, with a shower house in the ultralight area “pulverized” by the storm, he said. Many porta-potties were flipped over, with some traveling several yards before landing in ditches and creeks.
Bernegger noted Thursday afternoon that it appeared the storm tracked right down the runway, barely affecting the north end of the airport.
All remaining activities for the day were cancelled, with promises by SUN ’n FUN officials that the fly-in would open Friday morning at 8 a.m. with “business as usual.”
Clean-up crews from the city of Lakeland were committed to cleaning up tree branches and other debris from the storm, Bernegger said, while crews from Karl’s Event Services were working to repair exhibits and other tents around the grounds.
Many exhibitors and volunteers immediately pitched in, moving tree branches and ensuring the safety of all on the grounds. One volunteer pulled out a chain saw to help remove a tree that was blocking cars near the SUN ’n FUN Radio and SUN ’n FUN Today offices, while another radio volunteer rescued a dog that had been caught in the storm.
Buildings around the grounds lost power for several hours during and after the storm, so the folks from Honda Power Equipment pitched in, bringing a generator to the radio station, so it could continue broadcasting warnings as a second storm was barreling in, as well as at the media center so reporters could report on the storm.