Displaced in Florida take to shelters - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Displaced in Florida take to shelters

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Posted: Saturday, February 3, 2007 5:03 am | Updated: 6:27 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

LADY LAKE, Fla. - Displaced residents slept in shelters and officials enacted curfews after violent thunderstorms, including at least one tornado, left a swath of central Florida in shambles and killed 19 people or more.

The storms struck with little warning early Friday, spawning a tornado that ripped roofs and walls off single family homes and threw mobile homes off their foundations.

Officials said the twister hit between 3 and 4 a.m., a time when few people were listening to radio or watching TV to hear tornado warnings issued just minutes before the twister struck. Few communities in the region have warning sirens.

Early Saturday, 13 people were confirmed dead in the Paisley area and six in Lady Lake, emergency officials said. The identities of the victims were not being released, but some were reported to be teenagers.

State emergency management chief Craig Fugate said determining the exact number of dead could take days, and the priority was finding survivors who may be trapped under rubble.

Rescue workers going house to house searching for survivors found people who awoke to the storm's roar and watched their homes disintegrate around them. Residents talked about rescuing neighbors from the rubble and the roar of the storm.

The winds picked up one semi-truck and slammed it down on top of another one. A church built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane was destroyed by the winds.

James Pietro, 42, was sleeping inside his RV when the rumble of wind and snapping trees awoke him just in time to take cover with his girlfriend beneath their bed.

The RV was lifted into the air and rolled several times, finally coming to a rest a few feet from a pond, upside down and nearly torn in half. The two came away with only scratches.

"I'm thinking, God help me. I was praying, praying hard," Pietro said. "I don't see how I lived."

Gov. Charlie Crist, dealing with his first natural disaster since taking office a month ago, toured the region, calling the devastation "really dramatic" and declared a state of emergency in four counties north of Orlando: Lake, Volusia, Sumter and Seminole.

Crist also asked President Bush to declare a major disaster for Florida as a result of the storms.

The Volusia County Property Appraisers Office put preliminary damage estimate at $80 million and said as many as 500 properties were damaged by the storms.

The 19 deaths made Friday's tornado the second-deadliest in Florida history, surpassing a 1962 tornado that killed 17 in the Panhandle but behind five twisters in February 1998 that killed 42 people in central Florida and damaged or destroyed about 2,600 homes and businesses.

Jason Pawelczyk, 32, said he was in his mobile home when the tornado ripped through the area. He took cover in a closet with his mother and emerged seconds later to find half his roof gone.

"We finally made it outside, and all you heard was people screaming for each other," he said. "It was pouring rain, flashlights everywhere. All you could see was silhouettes, people yelling for each other. It was crazy."

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