- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 4, 2007

LADY LAKE, Fla. (AP) — Tornado survivors and their supporters turned out for a Sunday service at a church that was demolished in the killer storms that ripped through Central Florida, remembering the victims while trying to stay optimistic about the long recovery ahead.

This rural area still echoed with the sounds of hammers, chain saws and dump trucks, but gospel signing and shouts of “Hallelujah” dominated among the more than 100 people who gathered around the rubble of the Lady Lake Church of God on the sunny morning.

“We grieve with you, and there will be days that life will wear you down,” the Rev. Larry Lynn told the crowd from a makeshift wooden platform where a broken cross was propped up next to an American flag. “But life does go on, and we’re here to help you pull it together. Don’t let bitterness set in.”

The church’s splintered wreckage has become a rallying point in this rural area hit hard by the three tornadoes that killed 20 persons and destroyed hundreds of homes early Friday.

Elden Jefferson, 35, and his wife came to the service even though their concrete-block home had roof and wall damage that needed their attention.

“We felt this is where we needed to be today for ourselves, for other people, for this church,” Mr. Jefferson said.

A gospel choir sang and clapped on the makeshift stage.

“It’s sad because, you know, you think, ‘Next Sunday, I’m going to go to church, but it’s not there anymore.’ But the building can be replaced. We still have the family of people,” said Joy Newton, 53, whose home escaped damage.

Gov. Charlie Crist, handling his first natural disaster since taking office last month, also attended yesterday’s service, having canceled plans to attend the Super Bowl last night in Miami.

President Bush has designated Lake, Sumter, Seminole and Volusia counties as disaster areas eligible for millions of dollars in aid and loans. Early estimates showed at least $68 million in property losses and about 1,300 homes and buildings damaged or destroyed in Lake, Sumter and Volusia counties.

Meteorologists said at least three tornadoes struck the area between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. Friday, when few people were awake to hear broadcast tornado warnings. The two worst ones had wind estimated at 155 to 165 mph.

“The funny thing is I never felt a breeze,” said Ellsworth Fischer, 70, a retired telephone company worker. “God was protecting me, no ifs ands or buts about it.”

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