LADY LAKE, Fla. – Disaster crews with dogs went from one pile of debris to another in a search for bodies Friday after powerful storms, including at least one tornado, smashed hundreds of homes across central Florida and killed 19 people or more.
It was the second-deadliest combination of thunderstorms and tornados in Florida history, cutting a 40-mile swath of destruction across four counties just before daybreak, terrorizing residents of one of the nation's biggest retirement communities, and leaving trees and fields littered with clothes, furniture and splintered lumber.
Residents helped pull the dead from the ruins.
"It was scary, really scary," said Patrick Smith, who lives in the Paisley area, where at least 13 deaths were reported. He said he saw a weather alert on television, grabbed his wife and "went straight to the floor." After the storm passed, he pulled the bodies of a man and his 9- or 10-year-old son from a neighboring house.
Florida's emergency management chief, Craig Fugate, said it could take several days to determine the exact number of dead, and the main priority was finding survivors who may be trapped.
Gov. Charlie Crist asked President Bush to declare a major disaster for Florida as a result of the storms. Crist already declared a state of emergency in four counties, but the worst damage was reported where the twister touched down in northern Lake County and eastern Volusia County. In typical tornado fashion, the storm hopscotched across the landscape, demolishing some homes and leaving others virtually untouched.
"Our priority today is search and rescue," said Crist, who toured the damaged area in his first natural disaster since taking office last month. "Everything's being done to get them the aid and assistance that they need."
Lake County spokesman Christopher Patton said there were 19 confirmed deaths, all in Lake County, about 50 miles northwest of Orlando. The dead included at least two high school students, authorities said. Numerous injuries were reported, but officials could not immediately estimate how many.
Officials in Lake and Volusia counties ordered dusk-to-dawn curfews in heavily damaged areas to prevent looting and injuries to residents trying to sift through wreckage in the dark.
Authorities said hundreds of houses, mobile homes and other buildings were damaged or destroyed. Volusia County reported a preliminary estimate of $80 million in damage involving 500 properties.
The storm left yards strewn with chairs, beds and clothes, knocked tractor-trailers onto their sides as if they were toys, and tore away roofs. Debris hung from trees, and some homes were thrown off their foundations.
Bernadette Fields, 67, said two of her neighbors in mobile homes were blown through a bedroom wall into Lake Mack. Their bodies were found by their own dog, she said.
Dozens of rescue workers — many hardened by experience with Florida's multiple hurricanes — went from house to house, spray-painting big red X's to mark the husks of buildings that they had checked. Often they found people who awoke to the storm's roar and watched their homes disintegrate around them.
Lee Shaver, 54, said he and his wife, Irene, and their dog had "about 10 seconds" to take shelter in a closet before their roof was torn off.
"Every muscle and bone in my body shook," said Lee Shaver outside his damaged home in The Villages, one of the nation's largest retirement communities.
"It was terrifying. You're not thinking consciously. You're just trying to save your life," added his 55-year-old wife.
Tornado watches had been posted hours before the twister struck, and warnings were issued between eight and 15 minutes before they touched down, said meteorologist Dave Sharp of the National Weather Service in Melbourne.
But few people were listening to the radio or watching television at that hour, and few communities in the region have warning sirens.
"The most dangerous tornado scenario is a threat for killer tornadoes at night, and that was the case," Sharp said.
The weather service estimated the tornado had winds of between 136 mph and 165 mph, Sharp said. But that was based on where the twister first touched down and did not include some of the hardest-hit areas, which researchers planned to examine Saturday, he said.
Vern Huber, 87, said his weather radio alarm went off around 3:30 a.m. and he and his wife, Louedna, 81, huddled in the hall and put pillows from the couch on top of themselves.
"It was a deafening roar," Huber said.
In Lady Lake, the Church of God was demolished, its pews, altar and torn Bibles left in a jumbled mess. The 31-year-old, steel-reinforced structure was built to withstand 150-mph winds, the Rev. Larry Lynn said.
By daybreak, parishioners gathered on the lot where the church once stood, hugging each other and consoling Lynn. They planned to clear the debris and hold Sunday services on the empty lot.
"That's just the building, the people are the church. We'll be back bigger and stronger," Lynn said.
While Lake County got the worst of it, Volusia County officials reported that 69 homes were damaged in New Smyrna Beach. A county medical clinic in DeLand was severely damaged.
"We heard a big boom then we heard the freight-train noise. All five of us got in the closet," said Linda Craig, 44, who lives in Hontoon Island, a heavily damaged area of Volusia County.
The winds lifted one tractor-trailer and dropped it on another, pinning the driver in the cab of the second semi, said Kim Miller, a spokeswoman with the Florida Highway Patrol. The driver's injuries were not considered life-threatening.
About 10,000 customers were without power. Several counties opened shelters for those who lost their homes.
Friday's storms were reminiscent of past tornados during years where El Nino was a weather factor, as it was again in this case, said state meteorologist Ben Nelson.
The 19 deaths made Friday's tornado the second-deadliest in Florida history, surpassing a 1962 tornado outbreak that killed 17 in the Panhandle.
The state's deadliest tornado event on record happened in February 1998, when five twisters hit near Orlando over two days, killing 42 people and damaging or destroying about 2,600 homes and businesses.