LADY LAKE, Fla. – Gospel signing and shouts of "Hallelujah!" competed with the sounds of hammers, chain saws and dump trucks Sunday as parishioners of a church obliterated by a tornado gathered around the rubble to remember the dead and pray for the strength to rebuild.
The Lady Lake Church of God's splintered wreckage has become a rallying point in this rural area of central Florida hit hard by three tornadoes that killed 20 people and destroyed hundreds of homes early Friday.
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"We grieve with you and there will be days that life will wear you down," the Rev. Larry Lynn told more than 100 people from a makeshift wooden platform where a broken cross was propped up next to an American flag. "But life does go on and we're here to help you pull it together. Don't let bitterness set in."
Elden Jefferson, 35, and his wife came to the service even though their concrete block home had roof and wall damage that needed their attention.
"We felt this is where we needed to be today for ourselves, for other people, for this church," Jefferson said.
A gospel choir sang and clapped on the makeshift stage under sunny skies.
"It's sad because, you know, you think 'Next Sunday, I'm going to go to church, but it's not there any more.' But the building can be replaced. We still have the family of people," said Joy Newton, 53, whose home in The Villages retirement community nearby escaped damage.
Gov. Charlie Crist, handling his first natural disaster since taking office last month, also attended Sunday's service, having canceled plans to attend the Super Bowl on Sunday night in Miami.
Crist later told reporters that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had kept its promise to help quickly, unlike its tardy response as New Orleans slid into chaos after Hurricane Katrina.
"There's no question about it. This isn't Louisiana. This is Florida. They really come in here and come in here strong," said Crist.
President Bush has designated Lake, Sumter, Seminole and Volusia counties as disaster areas eligible for millions of dollars in aid and loans. Early estimates showed at least $68 million in property losses and about 1,300 homes and buildings damaged or destroyed in Lake, Sumter and Volusia counties.
FEMA and state emergency managers opened a disaster recovery center Sunday near Lady Lake to hand out aid and provide counseling. About 200 FEMA workers were in the area, spokesman James McIntyre said. The agency sent emergency supplies such as generators, water, tarps, but the state also had its own inventory.
However, all shelters were closed because people found accommodations with friends and relatives. Some 1,600 customers were still without power Sunday.
About 50 National Guard troops, residents and volunteers helped with the cleanup. The Salvation Army had mobile canteens to provide counseling and meals to residents and rescue workers. More than 50 low-risk uniformed jail inmates from neighboring Marion County were back to help remove debris.
Meteorologists said at least three tornadoes struck the area between 3 and 4 a.m. Friday, when few people were awake to hear broadcast tornado warnings. The two worst twisters had wind estimated at 155 to 165 mph — about 30 mph stronger than Hurricane Katrina.
The storm caved in the roof of Ellsworth Fischer's Lake Mack-area home as the 70-year-old lay over his wife in a bathtub to protect her. The roof's weight crushed the sides of the steel tub, and the collapse left Fischer, a retired telephone company worker, with deep bruises all over his chest, face and head.
"It feels like I've got a horse sitting on my chest," said Fischer, who has arthritis and high blood pressure and usually gets around on a scooter.
"The funny thing is I never felt a breeze," he added. "God was protecting me, no ifs and or buts about it."