Storms, tornado kill 14 in Central Florida
ORLANDO, Florida – Severe thunderstorms and at least one tornado killed 14 people on Friday when they ripped through Florida in the dead of night, tearing homes to shreds, toppling heavy trucks and leaving a trail of rubble.
More than 500 homes, buildings and churches were damaged or destroyed across a wide area of central Florida north of the key tourism region around Orlando, but Walt Disney Co.’s Disney World resort was not affected.
Rescue teams fanned out in the morning to search for survivors and victims who might still be trapped under flattened homes.
The storm hit at 3:15 a.m. (0815 GMT) and a spokesman for the Lake County sheriff’s office said at least one and perhaps two tornadoes touched down in a state that ranks only behind the infamous «Tornado Alley» in the Midwest for the number of tornado strikes. Most, such as a twister on Christmas Day last year, cause no fatalities.
Christopher Patton, spokesman for the Lake County emergency operations center, told Reuters 14 people were killed — three in Lady Lake, about 40 miles northwest of Orlando, and 11 in nearby Paisley, on the edge of the Ocala National Forest.
«We have complete devastation of homes, of businesses, religious institutions,» Patton said on CNN. «It was unlike even perhaps the hurricanes of 2004 when we had minor roof damage, screen damage, pool damage. This is way far more devastating.»
About 1,000 tornadoes hit the United States annually, killing on average 80 people a year, and winter tornadoes appear to be more prevalent during El Nino years, when the waters of the eastern Pacific become unusually warm.
«This is something that we’ve seen here in the past in our state when we’ve had El Nino conditions in place,» said state meteorologist Ben Nelson.
In February 1998, a swarm of tornadoes killed more than 40 people in central Florida and injured scores more. One narrowly missed the crowded tourist area that includes Disney World, Universal Studios Florida and Sea World.
SEVERAL NEIGHBORHOODS HIT
Television images showed that Friday’s Florida storms had torn through several neighborhoods, leaving little but piles of debris scattered over concrete foundations.
«We believe more than one tornado may have touched down but still need to ascertain that,» said Walt Zaleski of the
National Weather Service.
Pastor Howard Roszak of the First Baptist Church in Paisley said two teenage boys who belonged to his church were killed. One of the boys died along with his father, while both parents of the other teen were killed.
«I know all these kids real good. I love these kids. I hear there is nothing left … just absolutely nothing,» Roszak said, referring to the home of one of the boys.
«It’s been rough this morning.»
Florida Highway Patrol spokeswoman Kim Miller said the tornado blew over five tractor-trailer rigs on the interstate highway in Volusia County at about 3:45 a.m.
«We saw tractor-trailers littered all over the interstate,» she told CNN. «We had a few cars mixed into that.»
Nearly 30,000 utility customers lost power but almost three-quarters of those had been brought back on line by noon, an official with the local utility, Progress Energy, said.
Florida’s $9 billion citrus industry «truly dodged a bullet» since the storms hit on the northern edge of the orange-growing region, said Mike Sparks, chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual. He said the impact to citrus was insignificant.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist postponed the scheduled presentation of his first budget and declared a state of emergency in four affected counties, allowing emergency funds to be distributed as needed. The Red Cross opened shelters for people left homeless.