- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2007

LADY LAKE, Fla. (AP) — Disaster crews with dogs went from one pile of debris to another in a search for bodies yesterday after powerful storms, including at least one tornado, smashed hundreds of homes across central Florida and killed at least 19 persons.

It was the deadliest combination of thunderstorms and tornadoes 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 helped 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.

“Our priority today is search and rescue,” said Mr. 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.

Bernadette Fields, 67, said two of her neighbors in a mobile home were blown through a bedroom wall into Lake Mack. Their bodies were found by their own dog, she said.

Dozens of rescue workers went from house to house, spray-painting big red Xs 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.

Tornado watches had been posted hours before the twisters struck, and warnings were issued between eight and 15 minutes before they touched down, said meteorologist Dave Sharp of the National Weather Service in Melbourne.

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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Lynn said.

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