by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
February 2, 2007
FLORIDA STORMS KILL 20; A LIGHT SHOW IN THE SKY
BRADENTON, Fla., Feb. 2, 7:48 a.m. ET [Updated Feb. 3, 4:44p.m. ET]-- A series of strong thunderstorms accompanied by devastating tornados, high winds, cascades of lightning and torrential rain moved inland eastward across south-central Florida from the Gulf Coast this morning, killing at least 20 people and leaving a miles-long quarter-mile-wide swath of destruction, news organizations reported.
The storm and tornados damaged hundreds of homes in Lady Lake, a village about 50 miles north of Orlando in
south-central Florida's Lake County, at about 3:15 a.m., according to televised news reports emanating from the Lake County Sheriff's office.
When daylight came, emergency crews in Lake County also found 1,000 damaged homes and trailers - but no further victims - in The Villages, central Florida's largest retirement community, The Villages Daily Sun, an online community paper said; in Volusia County, an estimated 500 homes suffered some $80 million in storm damage, the county assessor's office said, with more mobile homes destroyed.
It was the deadliest tornado to hit Florida since 1998, when twisters killed 42 people and damaged 2,800 homes.
Perhaps more poignant, a flock of 18 endangered whooping cranes that had been guided to Florida to start a second migratory flock of the rare birds was wiped out by the storms that hit their nesting ground, the Chassahowitzka Naional Wildlife Refuges close to Crystal River, Fla. They apparently were drowned by storm surge during the night.
By 8 a.m., officials knew at least two people died, but as the day remained dark in Florida, officials held out the
possibility that more deaths and injuries would be discovered when crews could further explore the area where the heaviest damage occurred.
Later, reports airing on CNN said the Lake County death toll had reached 14, including three in Lady Lake and 11 in Paisley and nearby Lake Mack, Fla. Only after further exploration of the devaastated area did rescuers find four more bodies buried in the rubble in Lady Lake, including a teenage girl struck by a tree in her bed, bringing the apparent death toll there to seven, and they found two more victims in Paisley.
The Sentinel offered this dramatic description of the tornados' impact:
"Residents at Applewood Apartments in DeLand said one man was inside his car when a twister picked it up and flipped it across the street. The vehicle landed upright, and the man was able to get out safely and make a call on his cell phone.
"It woke me out of a dead sleep," said resident David Wholly. "I heard the noise, and it sounded like a train coming and I ran to the bathroom. The tree went right through the bedroom window right where my head was."
About 20,000 people were without power, the AP said, attributing the report to Florida Progress Energy,
a utility company serving central Florida.
The region has no warning sirens, so only a few who were awake just after 3 a.m. Friday, when some television stations interrupted broadcasts with tornado warnings, were aware of the terrible destruction to come.
Said one Internet poster in Topix.net from Winter Park, Fla., an upscale retirement community west of Orlando,
I went to bed early, woke up it was crazy , y did they not give a reverse 911 call to warn the people ?? they should have a program to reverse 911 call to warn everyone that does not stay up all night , Just a idea , y cant they make a plan like that for the future??????
The area is well north of Miami, and the storm's aftermath is unlikely to have any significant impact on preparations for Sunday's Super Bowl football game between the Chicago Bears and Baltimore Colts. The fiercest storms exited the state in the next hour between St. Augustine and Cape Canaveral, but some rain is expected in Miami over the weekend. At Miami International Airport late Friday night, the traffic and crowds were normal, and there were no signs of concern. Only a light rain fell, mostly over parts of the Everglades.
The Associated Press reported earlier at least five crashes had occurred near the New Smyrna Beach exit on I-95, leaving the highway closed for three hours or more.
The storms and tornados destroyed dozens of mobile homes in Lady Lake. At least two deaths occurred when a semi-trailer was lifted in the air and then fell back to earth, striking another semi and pinning the driver in his cab. The driver was badly injured but survived, the AP said.
The wire service described gruesome scenes of devastation in Lake County, where it said "chairs, beds and clothes were strewn about yards, and debris hung from trees. Some homes were tossed from their foundations, while other had their roofs ripped off."
According to the Orlando Sentinel, the region's leading newspaper, central Florida's major east-west artery, Interstate 4, was closed in both directions due to truck crashes, and traffic accidents were blamed for a power outage that darkened 5,000 homes in Volusia County for several hours.
Dramatic changes in the sky's light occurred in the space of just 16 minutes, as illustrated by two photos taken from this correspondent's home at 7:15 and 7:31 a.m. ET, respectively. The light returnrd to normal by 9 a.m., shown in a third photo.
The photos were taken with a Sony DSC-8500 Cybershot 6-megapixel digital camera.
This is the first, taken at 7:15 a.m. ET:
In just 16 minutes, the skies changed color from a bright, sickly yellow to an even more ominous dark, producing a phenomenon in which a normal-looking sky never came until an hour later, and the day got progressively darker as morning arrived. By 9 a.m. ET, the sky was heavily overcast but more nearly normal.
Srill, the ominous sky moved many of us to turn on our televisions and learn for the first time about the twisters that left a 40-mile-wide area devastated amid the worst disaster in Lake County's history. When the sky then suddenly turned from the neon yellow to a dark, angry purple, the news was suddenly driven home - were there tornados and heavy winds headed for us, as the crawl lines on the tv screen indicated?
As it turned out, we were just watching nature's own private light show.
This is the second, taken at 7:31 a.m. ET:
As the heavy rains and booming thunder and lightning display moved across Manatee County, they did little damage. Some trees lost limbs and cable television and Internet service was briefly interrupted. There were no injuries due to the storm reported in Manatee County or nearby Sarasota.
The area reportedly had a reputation among early Native American tribes for being insulated from heavy storm damage. and in fact it escaped major damage ftom all four of the hurricanes which swept across the state in 2004. But it is also known for the drama and breathtaking beauty of its dawns and sunsets, particularly near the pristine beaches ranked among the finest in the world for their pure white, fine-grained sand.
Thus Friday morning's eerie yellow sky was unusual, but probably not unique in the county's history. It was profoundly startling, hoever, resembling the aftermath of a nuclear meltdown or other catastrophic event. Before it suddenly turned a dark purple, the bright yellow sky probably woke many county residents with its strange, glaring color.
This is the third, taken at 8:57 a.m. ET:
For Florida residents, the Lake County disaster is just one of the many natural disasters this state is subject to, and for each of those, residency here is a trade-off of odds against benefits of living here.
The state's natural beauty and warm winters, its many recreational opportunities, tax breaks for seniors and a sharply lower cost of living - threatened now by runaway insurance rates and rising property assessments - attract thousands of retirees, but Florida is now facing competition for those Baby Boomers from other Southern states and Arizona.
Then there are the "halfbacks" - retirees who initially move to Florida and then decide the weather is too much of a gamble, and move halfway back to their colder northern homes - to North Carolina, in many cases, and less often, Tennessee. Georgia is also becoming attractive to these retirees - it is has low-priced homes, a moderate climate and much lower gas prices.
Joe Shea is Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter.