'WAR ZONE': Tallahassee battered by possible tornado; one dead amid widespread damage (2024)

A ferocious storm system that spawned multiple reported tornadoes brought heavy and widespread damage to Tallahassee on Friday morning, toppling trees onto homes, rendering roads impassible and knocking out power to more than 80,000 area electric customers.

At least one person, a 47-year-old woman who hasn't been identified, was killed in the storm after a tree fell on her home, according to the Leon County Sheriff’s Office.

“We regret to inform that deputies are working a storm related fatality in the area of Aenon Church Road,” the Sheriff’s Office said.

Almost 80,000 out of power at height of storm; restoration will take 'some time'

The storms, which intensified as they approached Tallahassee, brought Tallahassee to a virtual standstill, with damage reminiscent of the aftermath of a hurricane. It prompted schools, universities and businesses without power to shutter for the day.

A number of eyewitnesses, including first responders, reported seeing tornadoes downtown and elsewhere. The damage extended from the west along Blountstown Highway to the east in the Chaires community. Among hard-hit areas were downtown, Indianhead Acres, Myers Park and Railroad Square.

'WAR ZONE': Tallahassee battered by possible tornado; one dead amid widespread damage (2)

With half of the capital city power grid offline, mutual-aid crews were arriving from Louisiana, Alabama, Jacksonville and Central Florida. Another 20,000-plus Talquin Electric customers were in the dark, too. And unlike previous storms, the number of outages continued to mount in the hours after the squall's sudden blow.

“Early assessments of the electric grid show severe damage to transmission lines, impacting 11 substations,” the city said in a text message to customers. “Mutual aid has been requested, and crews from ten utilities are on their way.”

Alison Faris, a city spokeswoman, said crews would be working overnight and into the weekend get the grid back online.

"The restoration is going to take some time because of the severity of what we're seeing," she told the Democrat "There are lots of reports of downed trees and and downed poles. If you can stay off the roads, than please do, because that enables crews to do their work on power restoration and road clearing.”

'Tornadic capable': Official word still out but damage was widespread

Christian Oliver, meteorologist with the National Weather service in Tallahassee, said a line of severe storms intensified as it neared the city, spawning a reported tornado in the downtown area.

“As that line was approaching the city, we had three distinct circulations, each with their own tornado debris signature,” Oliver said. “It looked like they were all kind of coming together into one tornadic capable storm.”

Jeff Mortham was getting ready to go to work when the lights started flickering at his home in Winwood Hills and the winds began to howl outside. He watched through a window as what appeared to be a tornado ripped down trees behind his house.

'WAR ZONE': Tallahassee battered by possible tornado; one dead amid widespread damage (4)

“I definitely saw the wind and debris swirling there in the backyard,” Mortham said. “Whether or not somebody wants to call it a tornado, that’s what it looked like to me.”

The storm knocked down a 60-foot pecan tree in the front yard, blocking his driveway, though it fell away from the house. Another tree appeared to have knocked off part of his gutter, but his house and others nearby seemed to have escaped major damage.

“Everybody seems to be OK,” Mortham said. “There’s just going to be some damage to clean up. But everybody will get together, and we’ll make it happen.”

But others were not so lucky.

'Thank God my baby wasn't in there': Hard hit and near misses

Kathy Bryant woke up early Friday morning for her work shift at Burger King. Her goal was to leave before the severe weather storm hit.

"I can't believe this," Bryant said while wiping her tears. "What they gonna do about this."

She returned to her home on Wailes Street near Railroad Squareto a gaping hole. Her kitchen and living room space are now filled with debris and the trunk of a large pine tree that once sat outside her home.

'WAR ZONE': Tallahassee battered by possible tornado; one dead amid widespread damage (5)

"Thank God my baby wasn't in here," she said of her granddaughter who occasionally stays with her overnight.

Several of her neighbors gathered to help her collect her belongings including family photos and her insulin, which was trapped in what used to be her kitchen.

She lived in the house for four years. Now she's unsure of what she will do.

Damage was also extensive in the arborial Indianhead Acres, where fallen trees appeared to be blocking roads every 50 yards. One neighbor reported that a treetop near his house was snapped off, shorn of its branches and driven into the ground “like a pencil.”

The storm blasted buildings at Railroad Square, hitting the community of artists hard. It also sheared the nearby renovated Amtrak Station, peeling sheet metal and insulation off buildings and blowing it into College Town and nearby student housing. It wreaked havoc on Florida State University’s campus, damaging Dick Howser Stadium and knocking down the Flying High Circus tent.

'WAR ZONE': Tallahassee battered by possible tornado; one dead amid widespread damage (6)

The tent material was twisted around gnarled metal beams on the soaked ground. The circular bleaches were shattered in multiple spots with wires vining through everything.

It also damaged the cell communications network at points around town leading to failed calls andunsendabletexts at a time loved ones were seeking updates.

The storm left parts of the rural Chaires community in tatters, with one resident off Old St. Augustine Road describing the neighborhood as “a war zone.” Shanna Matteo said first responders were going house by house to check on residents.

“Our houses are intact but the trees fell on a lot of houses and are blocking a lot of roads,” she said. “They are saying that this is extensive in Tallahassee and countywide. I am blessed that our houses are intact and there doesn't seem to be anyone hurt so far. This could have been so much worse.”

Schools scramble: 'The timing couldn't have been worse'

After a white-knuckle start to the school day in which the district tried to keep schools open, Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna took to X to speak directly to parents late Friday morning.

Hanna said the district felt "reassured" by forecasters last night that the capital city would be spared the brunt of the storm.

"The timing couldn't have been worse," Hanna said. "Unfortunately, right before 7 a.m., the alarms went off and we held our busses moved our kids into safety in the hallways."

The school district had hoped to open campuses on a case-by-case basis and even opened elementary schools, but the extent of the damage forced them to change course.

'WAR ZONE': Tallahassee battered by possible tornado; one dead amid widespread damage (7)

"There were just too many logistical obstacles to overcome," Hanna said.

He told parents crews would be working over the weekend to ensure schools could be open Monday.

Florida State, Florida A&M University and Tallahassee Community College closed their campuses in the wake of the storms. FAMU instructed employees to work from home.

FSU Alert, the campus emergency notification system, said the campus would shut down indefinitely. The university said essential employees may be required to report but that others should contact their supervisors.

"Following the completion of the first wave of storm assessments, it has been determined that the severe impact on campus necessitates the closure of the Tallahassee campus for business operations until further notice,” the university said.

'Full activation': Long road ahead for recovery

As many city resident picked up the pieces from a brief but ferocious storm, Gov. Ron DeSantis took to X to thank responders and pledge the state's support in the recovery ahead.

"Following the severe weather that impacted North Florida this morning, I have directed the Florida Division of Emergency Management to work with local officials and do everything possible to return life to normalcy for our residents as quickly as possible," he wrote. "Thank you to the first responders and utility workers who are working on power and roadway restoration. Stay safe and heed instructions from@FLSERTand local authorities."

'WAR ZONE': Tallahassee battered by possible tornado; one dead amid widespread damage (9)

Kevin Peters, director of Leon County Emergency Management, said there was wind-based damage throughout the county and multiple reports of possible tornadoes. He said teams would will be going out in the near future to conduct damage assessments.

“The county has escalated to a full activation of the Emergency Operations Center to coordinate community-wide response and recovery,” Peters said.

Oliver, with the Weather Service, said meteorologists would got into the field once the weather passed to confirm whether the damage was caused by tornadoes. He said a firefighter in the Gaines Street area was among eyewitnesses who reported spotting a tornado.

“We’ll have to go out once it’s safe to do so to see what really happened and what moved through the city,” he said. “But we’ve had people call in saying that they actually saw at least one tornado.”

Journalists Kyla Sanford, Alaijah Brown, Ana Goñi-Lessan, Alicia Devine, Douglas Soule, and William Hatfield contributed to this report. Jeff Burlew can be reached at jburlew@tallahassee.com

'WAR ZONE': Tallahassee battered by possible tornado; one dead amid widespread damage (2024)
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