LADY LAKE, Fla. Disaster crews with dogs went from one pile of debris to another in a search for bodies today after powerful storms, including at least one tornado, smashed hundreds of homes across central Florida and killed 19 people or more.
It was the deadliest combination of thunderstorms and tornados to hit Florida in nearly a decade, cutting a 40-mile swath of destruction across four counties just before daybreak, terrorizing residents of one of the nation s biggest retirement communities, and leaving trees and fields littered with clothes, furniture and splintered lumber.
Residents help pull the dead from the ruins.
It was scary, really scary, said Patrick Smith, who lives in the Paisley area, where at least 13 deaths were reported. He said he saw a weather alert on television, grabbed his wife and went straight to the floor. After the storm passed, he pulled the bodies of a man and his 9- or 10-year-old son from a neighboring house.
Florida s emergency management chief, Craig Fugate, said it could take several days to determine the exact number of dead, and the main priority was finding survivors who may be trapped.
Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency in four counties, but the worst damage was reported where the twister touched down in northern Lake County and eastern Volusia County.
In typical tornado fashion, the storm hopscotched across the landscape, demolishing some homes and leaving others virtually untouched.
Nancy England, right, comforts Richard Cox after their church, The Lady Lake Church of God, was destroyed by a tornado.
Our priority today is search and rescue, said Crist, who toured the damaged area in his first natural disaster since taking office last month. Everything s being done to get them the aid and assistance that they need.
Lake County spokesman Christopher Patton said there were 19 confirmed deaths, all in Lake County, about 50 miles northwest of Orlando. The dead included at least two high school students, authorities said. Numerous injuries were reported, but officials could not immediately estimate how many.
Authorities said hundreds of houses, mobile homes and other buildings were damaged or destroyed.
The storm left yards strewn with chairs, beds and clothes, knocked trailer-trailers onto their sides as if they were toys, and tore away roofs. Debris hung from trees, and some homes were thrown off their foundations.
Bernadette Fields, 67, said two of her neighbors in mobile homes were blown through a bedroom wall into Lake Mack. Their bodies were found by their own dog, she said.
Dozens of rescue workers many hardened by experience with Florida s multiple hurricanes went from house to house, spray-painting big red X s to mark the husks of buildings that they had checked. Often they found people who awoke to the storm s roar and watched their homes disintegrate around them.
Lee Shaver, 54, said he and his wife, Irene, and their dog had about 10 seconds to take shelter in a closet before their roof was torn off.
Aerial photo shows severe damage to homes in this retirement community of The Villages, Fla
Every muscle and bone in my body shook, said Lee Shaver outside his damaged home in The Villages, one of the nation s largest retirement communities.
It was terrifying. You re not thinking consciously. You re just trying to save your life, added his 55-year-old wife.
Tornado watches had been posted hours before the twister struck, and warnings were issued between 8 and 15 minutes before they touched down, said meteorologist Dave Sharp of the National Weather Service in Melbourne.
But few people were listening to the radio or watching television at that hour, and few communities in the region have warning sirens.
The most dangerous tornado scenario is a threat for killer tornadoes at night, and that was the case, Sharp said.
Vern Huber, 87, said his weather radio alarm went off around 3:30 a.m. and he and his wife, Louedna, 81, huddled in the hall and put pillows from the couch on top of themselves.
It was a deafening roar, Huber said.
Firefighters search for survivors after a severe storm moved through New Smyrna Beach, Fla.
In Lady Lake, the Church of God was demolished, its pews, altar and torn Bibles left in a jumbled mess. The 31-year-old, steel-reinforced structure was built to withstand 150-mph winds, the Rev. Larry Lynn said.
By daybreak, parishioners gathered on the lot where the church once stood, hugging each other and consoling Lynn. They planned to clear the debris and hold Sunday services on the empty lot.
That s just the building, the people are the church. We ll be back bigger and stronger, Lynn said.
While Lake County got the worst of it, Volusia County officials reported that 69 homes were damaged in New Smyrna Beach. A county medical clinic in DeLand was severely damaged.
We heard a big boom then we heard the freight-train noise. All five of us got in the closet, said Linda Craig, 44, who lives in Hontoon Island, a heavily damaged area of Volusia County.
The winds lifted one tractor-trailer and dropped it on another, pinning the driver in his cab, said Kim Miller, a spokeswoman with the Florida Highway Patrol. The driver s injuries were not considered life-threatening.
About 10,000 customers were without power. Several counties opened shelters for those who lost their homes.
Today s storms were reminiscent of past tornados during years where El Nino was a weather factor, as it was again in this case, said state meteorologist Ben Nelson.
In February 1998, five twisters hit near Orlando over two days, killing 42 people and damaging or destroying about 2,600 homes and businesses. It was Florida s deadliest tornado event on record.
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