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Florida's a leader when it comes to twisters

To help readers cope with the elements, we offer the fourth in a series of summer survival guides.

When it comes to twisters, Florida can claim the dubious distinction of being No. 1.

Last year, 69 tornadoes were confirmed in Florida.

They killed one person and injured 40, the National Weather Service said.

Tropical Storm Gordon alone spun off six.

That makes Florida first in the nation in the number of tornadoes occurring per square mile.

It is third in the total number of tornadoes occurring annually.

"The thing with tornadoes (here) is they're short-lived, not the ones you see in the Midwest," said John McMichael, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

In the past, tornadoes were hard to detect because they usually come with rain and the typical radar detection would mask it. But the Doppler radar has done better diagnosing tornadoes.

With winds that can reach more than 300 mph, tornadoes are one of the most destructive forces of nature.

Damage can range from light to total destruction.

Tornadoes

Here's a look at how tornadoes form and some precautions to take if one threatens.

Frequency

About 600 to 700 occur in the United States each year. Florida has scores each year.

Winds

Fastest winds on Earth; may reach more than 300 mph. Storms tend to move toward the northeast.

Size

Diameter varies from a few yards to about a mile. They travel at 25 to 60 mph but tend to be short lived in this area.

Warnings

Even with the best technology, forecasters have no way of knowing more than 20 minutes ahead of time exactly where a tornado will form and where it will go.

Precautions

Once a tornado warning is issued take cover immediatley. Stay away from windows, doors and outside walls of buildings. A basement or an interior area on the lowest level are safest. Get under a sturdy object. If driving, leave the vehicle for low ground. Lie flat and protect your head with your arms.

Mobile home precautions

Experts say no one should be inside a mobile home during a tornado. Have a plan to find sturdy shelter if tornadoes are in the area. If you can't get to a shelter, leave the mobile home and lie flat on the ground in the lowest spot you can find.

How a tornado forms

1. The first stage in tornado development occurs when a rising column of warm air penetrates overlying cool air.

Vortex winds spin counterclockwise and upward.

2. Plunging air starts a spiral flow; the initial vortex is several miles in diameter.

3. When it touches the ground, the funnel curves as friction slows its base, and it quickly turns dark with dust and debris.

Power is concentrated in a narrow swath between 10 and 400 yards wide at the base of the funnel.

Tornadoes are usually accompanied by heavy rain, thunder and lightning.

Sources: the Weather Book, World Book Encyclopedia, UPI reports, Times research.

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