OCALA, Fla. - When a tornado was on the ground near Ocala, Florida Sunday, Vicki Bennett said her employees had no idea.
"They just said it was so fast," said Bennett, whose business "Cats and Dogs" was ripped apart. "They didn’t have a clue. These guys here said everything was normal and then all of a sudden, there was a tornado."
There's never a good time for a tornado, but this storm had particularly bad timing. The National Weather Service admits its Doppler radar in Jacksonville, which is supposed to cover Marion County, was down for maintenance during the storm.
"That was planned maintenance," said NWS Jacksonville Senior Forecaster Ben Nelson. "We wish that it didn't coincide with this event. That was scheduled several months in advance, and we didn't have any say here at the local level."
But even if the radar was working, Nelson said it still may not have detected the tornado.
"We are in between radars, essentially, where we don’t have a lot of coverage," he told FOX 35 Orlando.
And no tornado warning means no tornado sirens. The dead zone, where tornadoes may not be detected on radar, is covering a part of north central Florida that has been hit with destructive tornadoes in the past.
On Groundhog’s Day in 2007, three tornadoes ripped through Sumter, Lake and Volusia counties, killing 21 people. The NWS did issue a tornado warning during those storms.
In Sumter County, where The Villages' population continues to boom, Emergency Management Director David Casto said they rely on a Tampa area radar, which again, is too far to pick up all the action on the ground.
"It’s hard being this far out for the radar to catch the little spin up tornadoes that happen very quickly," Casto said.
So who can put a better detection system in this growing region?
"It would be nice to have one near us, but I don’t have the power to make that happen," Casto told FOX 35.
Nelson said Washington, D.C. decides on the radar maintenance schedule and sites.
"With anything with the federal government, if you'd like to see improvements, the best thing for folks to do is contact your congressman or congresswoman to voice their concerns," Nelson said.
FOX 35 reached out to Florida Congressman Daniel Webster and Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.
A representative for Rubio said his schedule was too busy for an interview. Webster’s team said they would check, and then we never heard back. We still had not heard anything from Scott at the time this article was published.