At Least 14 Dead in Central Florida Storms

Lady Lake, Fla. (AP) -- At least 14 people were killed early Friday as severe thunderstorms and at least one tornado struck central Florida, flattening hundreds of homes and a church, causing power outages and lifting a tractor trailer into the air, officials said.

Lake County spokesman Christopher Patton confirmed the 14 deaths to The Associated Press. Eleven deaths were reported in Paisley and three in Lady Lake, he said, both towns in Lake County about 50 miles northwest of Orlando. No further details were available.

Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency for Volusia, Sumter, Lake and Seminole counties and planned to head to the area to handle his first natural disaster since taking office last month. State emergency manager Craig Fugate estimated that hundreds of homes were destroyed.

"Our priority today is search and rescue," Crist told reporters in Tallahassee at the state Emergency Operations Center. He said he was in contact with the White House about the storm.

Dozens of mobile homes near Lady Lake and other areas were destroyed by the storms that hit in the middle of the night. Chairs, beds and clothes were strewn about yards, with debris hanging from trees.

Some homes were tossed from their foundations, while others had their roofs ripped off.

Authorities blocked access to neighborhoods because of downed power lines and possible gas line ruptures.

"The most dangerous tornado scenario is a threat for killer tornadoes at night, and that was the case," said Dave Sharp, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Melbourne.

The Lady Lake Church of God was demolished in the storm, its pews, altar and Bibles left in a jumbled, leveled 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.

Damage also was severe in The Villages retirement community, where Lee Shaver shielded his wife Irene with his body while huddling in a closet as the roof peeled off their home. Fence posts launched as projectiles were embedded into the wall of their home, Irene Shaver said.

"Every muscle and bone in my body shook," said Lee Shaver, 54. "We don't know what to do. We have no cell phones, wallets, IDs."

In Volusia County, another 69 homes were damaged in New Smyrna Beach and 10 people were transported to hospitals countywide with injuries, officials said. A county medical clinic in DeLand was severely damaged, officials said.

"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 storms moved across portions of Sumter and Lake counties about 3:15 a.m. and then headed to Volusia County, said Peggy Glitto, another weather service meteorologist in Melbourne. Forecasters started issuing tornado warnings for central Florida around midnight, and some stretched into the morning.

"I can say with high confidence that it's tornado damage. It's not straight-line wind damage," Sharp said.

At least five separate crashes took place within a quarter mile of each other near Interstate 4's New Smyrna Beach exit, shutting the highway down for about three hours.

The most serious one was when a semitrailer was lifted up and landed on another semi, pinning the driver in his cab, said Kim Miller, a spokeswoman with the Florida Highway Patrol. The driver didn't suffer life-threatening injuries.

"Whether it was a tornado or the wind, one semi landed on another and pinned the driver inside," Miller said. "We're very lucky only one person was injured."

Exit signs along the highway were torn down and uprooted trees lay along the road, Miller said.

About 20,000 customers were without power across a wide swath of central Florida, Progress Energy spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said.

But repair crews were already out restoring service as the storms passed. Florida Power & Light reported about 200 customers were without power in the DeLand area.

The state's Department of Emergency Management already had crews in the area for an unrelated event that are now being used to help, spokesman Mike Stone said.

Several counties opened shelters for those who lost their homes.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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