Officials in central Florida resumed search and rescue operations amid more thunderstorms Saturday, a day after powerful tornados killed at least 20 people and left a swath of central Florida in shambles.
Violent thunderstorms struck with little warning early Friday, spawning at least one tornado that cut a destructive path across central Florida. The twister, which struck between 3 and 4 a.m., ripped roofs and walls off single family homes, threw mobile homes off their foundations and picked up a semi-truck and slammed it down on top of another. A church built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane was flattened by the winds.
Gov. Charlie Crist returned Saturday to the battered areas around Lady Lake, about 50 miles northwest of Orlando, where seven people were confirmed dead. Another 13 were confirmed dead in Paisley, about 30 miles to the east.
State emergency officials said determining the exact number of dead could take days, and the priority was finding survivors who may be trapped under the rubble.
“Your heart pours out to the people affected and you want to help,” Crist said as he comforted some local residents. He said he was encouraged by the offers of support and planned to fly over the region with Federal Emergency Management Agency Director David Paulison.
Officials said the tornado hit at the worst possible time — an hour when few people were listening to the radio or watching television to hear tornado warnings issued minutes before the twister struck. Few communities in the region have warning sirens.
About 1,500 homes and businesses were still without power Saturday, mainly in the Deland and Lady Lake areas of Volusia and Lake counties, said Buddy Eller, spokesman for Progress Energy Florida, which serves 1.7 million customers.
Eller said he expected power would be fully restored Saturday. At the peak of the storm, 45,000 were without power, he said.
On Friday, Crist declared a state of emergency in four counties: Lake, Volusia, Sumter and Seminole. He 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.
Friday’s tornado was 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.
Associated Press reporters Curt Anderson, Damian Grass, Suzette Laboy and Adrian Sainz in Miami, and Ron Word and Brian Skoloff in Lake County contributed to this report.
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