- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2007

LADY LAKE, Fla. (AP) — Pulling blue tarps over houses that still had walls, neighbors, jail inmates and National Guard troops picked up during rain showers yesterday from dead-of-night thunderstorms that chewed through the middle of Florida, killing at least 20 persons.

The victims ranged from a 92-year-old man to Brittany May, 17, killed by a falling tree that crushed her bedroom.

President Bush designated four central Florida counties as disaster areas, releasing millions of dollars in aid for recovery and individual assistance.

“It makes you sick to your stomach for what we saw,” R. David Paulison, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said after touring the area yesterday morning with Gov. Charlie Crist.

At least one tornado, with winds estimated as strong as 200 mph, hit between 3 and 4 a.m. Friday, when few people were awake to hear tornado warnings on radio and TV.

The cleanup task was daunting yesterday as showers soaked roofless homes and piles of twisted aluminum siding, bricks, belongings, tree limbs and lumber. Power lines were down and traffic signals were out in many areas.

Neighbors helped Sherry Reeves, 48, sort through her belongings and patch a big hole in her roof. Miss Reeves was amazed that her home wasn’t leveled like hundreds of others in this area about 50 miles north of Orlando.

“The Good Lord slipped and missed, or luck of the draw,” she said.

The governor, handling his first natural disaster since he took office, said some stricken areas looked like “the surface of the moon.” Mr. Crist canceled plans to attend today’s Super Bowl in Miami to stay in central Florida.

Mr. Crist praised the residents and charitable groups who pitched in to help clean up. Neighboring Marion County sent a group of low-risk inmates, dressed in green-and-white striped jail clothes. Some religious groups served food to rescue workers and victims, while about 40 National Guard members distributed blankets, food and water.

“This is not just government, this is people helping people and doing what’s right,” Mr. Crist said at a press conference with Mr. Paulison, Sens. Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez and other officials.

Mr. Paulison said his agency, criticized for inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, had housing trailers, water trucks and other aid already on the way. Mr. Bush’s disaster declaration for Lake, Sumter, Seminole and Volusia counties also frees up loans and other assistance to individuals.

Retired school bus driver Jamie Wright had fled South Florida a year ago to escape hurricanes, looking for a peaceful life farther north. Miss Wright, 55, and her companion, Donald Lamond, 49, operators of a produce stand, were killed in their bed.

“We survived Hurricane Andrew in Homestead and it looked just like this,” her son, Bryan McKiness, said as he collected mementos from the wreckage of his mother’s home. “Mom said she’d had enough of hurricanes so she moved here. … She was enjoying the good life.”

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