Story Highlights• At least 19 killed in Lake County, Florida, by middle-of-night storm
• Search continues for victims amid miles of rubble
• Storms worse than hurricanes of 2004, official says
Adjust font size:
THE VILLAGES, Florida (CNN) -- The Villages was a shambles Friday.
The retirement community that describes itself on its Web site as a place "to enjoy life as you've always dreamed" is now a nightmare come true.
Tornadoes ripped through the central Florida darkness early Friday, killing at least 19 people and destroying homes, churches and businesses. (Full story)
In The Villages, resident Jack Hurst felt lucky Friday afternoon. "We felt the house vibrate," he said, describing the wind as roaring by like a freight train.
But the damage to his home was limited. "We had probably seven shingles out and a couple of holes in the screen."
Just a few doors away, neighbors were not so lucky.
"Within a few yards, there were houses that had no roof, no walls," Hurst said.
Villages resident Irene Shaver had walls, but the tornadic winds fired fence posts into them, leaving the posts embedded in the walls.
"Every muscle and bone in my body shook," Shaver's husband, Lee Shaver, 54, told The Associated Press. "We don't know what to do. We have no cell phones, wallets, IDs."
In nearby Lady Lake, they thanked God they were alive and pledged to rebuild.
The Rev. Larry Lynn was consoled by church members who came by the Lady Lake Church of God, a steel-reinforced structure, that was built to withstand 150-mph winds. It was turned into debris.
"That's just the building. The people are the church. We'll be back bigger and stronger," Lynn told the AP.
While the storms hit Volusia and Sumter counties, Lake County took the biggest blow. The 19 who died had lived there.
Jerry Smith, the county's emergency management director, said it was the county's worst-ever disaster. (Watch an aerial view of miles of destruction )
"We have complete devastation of homes, businesses, religious institutions," said Christopher Patton of the Lake County Emergency Operations Center. "It was unlike perhaps even the hurricanes of 2004."
Thirteen of the 19 people who died were in Paisley, on the county's eastern edge -- an hour and a half away from Lady Lake. Three of the deaths were in Lady Lake, where the storm bulldozed through a 20-square-mile area containing thousands of homes, Smith said.
Crews were conducting house-to-house searches, he said, and the death toll could rise.
Two of those killed were high-school students -- a 17-year-old girl and a freshman boy, said Anna Cowin, school superintendent. The boy, one of triplets, was killed along with his parents, while a sister, another triplet, was in serious condition at a hospital, Cowin's office said.
Villages resident Rhett Boswell said although snowbird retirees expect to face hurricanes in the summer, they were totally unprepared for the tornado that struck just a few days after freezing temperatures in the area.
Hurst said he appreciates the response and offers of help for those affected by the storms.
He said he still has a roof over his head and will try to help neighbors. "My mission right now is to help others who need help more than I do."
But he had a message for the gawkers looking at the destruction in his neighborhood.
"If you don't have a reason to be there, then don't get in the way of the folks who do."
A neighborhood in DeLand, Florida, shows the destruction caused by Friday morning's storms.
State of Florida 24-hour emergency hotline: (800) 342-3557
Quick Job Search