Officials say at least 14 people are dead after a series of violent thunderstorms and tornadoes tore through north-central Florida in the early hours of Friday morning. Peggy Glitto, a weather service meteorologist, said the storm moved across portions of Sumter and Lake counties about 3:15 a.m. and then moved to Volusia County.
Emergency workers have confirmed the 14 deaths. Teams are going house-to-house and searching apartment buildings and other structures in a four-county area.
Florida Governor Charlie Crist and Emergency Management Director Craig Fugate fear that the death toll could rise as rescue teams get into more rural areas throughout the day. Crist has activated the State Emergency Response Team and declared a state of emergency for Lake, Seminole, Sumter, and Volusia counties. The state's Emergency Operations Center already had crews in the area for an unrelated event that are now being used to help.
Speaking from Tallahassee, the governor said, "Obviously, this morning we had a significant weather event. I have just signed an executive order that will affect the four affected counties - Volusia, Sumter, Lake and Seminole Counties... Our priority today is search and rescue. We want to make sure that anybody who is in the affected area that we make we get them out, that we get them out safely... We understand that people want to check on loved ones, [but] they should not try to get into the area they're not already in there. We want to keep the passageways clear for emergency vehicles."
Crist went on to say that he had spoken with the director of FEMA and told him how important it is that the state get as much assistance as possible. "We've also been in communication this morning with the White House. They said they would give us full support from the federal government," the governor said.
About 20,000 customers are without power across a wide swath of central Florida. Repair crews were already out restoring service as soon as the storms passed. Florida Power & Light reported about 200 customers were without power in the DeLand area.
Witness say the damage scene resembles a war zone. The swiftly moving storms toppled houses, churches, and public buildings.
In Volusia County, sheriff Ben Johnson told citizens in his area, "We don't have time to go out and chase down individuals. We're looking for people who are hurt, to protect their property and that's our first line of importance. And I can't stress enough, don't let us catch you in somebody else's property. And we don't need to see you riding around so you could see what's happened here. Watch the news media. If you get in the way, we're going to deal with you."
Sheriff Johnson continued with an assessment of the damage in Volusia County. "The damage from this storm is much more widespread. I think we're going to find a lot more damage monetarily. It was a lot longer of a storm... This storm showed no conscience. It took out mobile homes; it took out apartment complexes..." He added that the storms had affected his department, as well. "And the building is absolutely destroyed. We're going to have to relocate our district office. We're trying to recover the property. It's damaged and destroyed and, at the moment, we have to stop operations until they shore up some of the walls."
Damage reports have filtered in from all over the storm-ravaged area. Eleven of the victims were killed in and around the community of Paisley.
A school and homes in The Villages, a planned city for active retirees, were damaged. A resident of The Villages, Lee Shaver, said "every muscle and bone" in his body shook as he shielded his wife, Irene. They were huddled in a closet as the roof peeled away. Fence posts got stuck in the wall of their house. He says they've lost wallets, I.D.s, and cell phones, and don't know what to do.
Dozens of mobile homes near Lady Lake have been destroyed. Chairs, beds and clothes are strewn about yards, and debris hangs from trees. Some homes were tossed from their foundations, while others had their roofs ripped off.
The Lady Lake Church of God was demolished in the storm, its pews, altar and Bibles left in a jumbled, leveled mess. By daybreak, parishioners gathered on the lot where the church once stood, hugging each other and vowing to return bigger and stronger. They're planning to hold services Sunday in the empty lot.
The church was built 31 years ago to withstand winds of 150 miles-an-hour. The Reverend Larry Lynn says, "That's the building. The people are the church."
In an interview with the Associated Press, Glenn Petillo, a resident of Liberty Park who survived the storm, says he was awakened by the sound of strong winds just after 3 a.m., adding that the winds sounded like a freight train. He says he's lucky that his house was not destroyed. Less than an hour after the storm, he learned that a friend had not been so lucky, and had lost his house to the storm.
At least five crashes took place within a quarter-mile of each other near Interstate 4's New Smyrna Beach exit. The highway was closed for about three hours.
Kim Miller, a spokeswoman with the Florida Highway Patrol, said the most serious one was when a semi-trailer was lifted up and landed on another semi, pinning the driver in his cab. The driver didn't suffer any life-threatening injuries.
Many residents in the region said they did not know the storm was coming and did not hear warning sirens. The National Weather Service had issued warnings, but most residents were unaware of them because of the timing of the storm. The speed at which the storm moved through the region added to the element of surprise.
On the Net:
Florida Division of Emergency Management: http://www.floridadisaster.org/index.asp
Sources: ABC News, The Associated Press, and CNN