ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Floridians should brace themselves for a wet and wild winter, all thanks to El Nino.
The weather pattern happens every few years when the Pacific Ocean warms up around the equator. This year's is one of the strongest El Ninos on record.
Craig Fugate, a former Floridian who once headed the state's emergency management operations and who is now the Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator, said the last time Florida saw such a strong El Nino, dozens people died from tornadoes.
"You just don't think of Florida as a tornado-prone state," said Fugate.
In 1998, seven tornadoes swept through the Melbourne area, killing 42 and injuring more than 250. The storms happened at night, when most people were sleeping.
Attention on El Nino this year has largely centered around California, which is experiencing a draught. More precipitation is forecast — and hoped for — in that state.
For Florida, Fugate called the El Nino pattern "basically a conveyor belt for storms." Many of the deadly tornadoes in Florida have happened in the winter and at night, when people are sleeping, said Fugate.
The storms in the Sunshine State generally tend to begin in early December and last through March, said Eric Oglesby, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin.
During an El Nino year, the southern jet stream is much stronger than it normally would be, and the storm track moves across the southern tier of the U.S.
"The dynamic conditions for tornadic development are ideal," said Oglesby.
Typically, winter in Florida is the dry season.
What can people do to prepare?
Fugate said Floridians should be prepared with emergency kits, weather radios and evacuation plans because strong storms, flash flooding and tornadoes are especially possible this winter.
He added that many smartphones are now equipped with automatic weather alerts that emit a unique noise when there is a tornado watch or warning in the area.