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Tornadoes kill at least 19 in Florida

Story Highlights

FEMA director reportedly planning to arrive during weekend
Death toll climbs to 19 as crews search rubble
• Volusia County sheriff declares curfew in affected areas
Governor declares emergency in Lake, Seminole, Sumter, Volusia counties
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LADY LAKE, Florida (CNN) -- At least 19 people were killed in one county Friday as catastrophic storms packing tornadoes raked across central Florida.

Lake County authorities said the early-morning storm killed 13 people in the town of Paisley and six more in Lady Lake.

Among the dead were two high school students -- a 17-year-old girl and a boy who was a freshman, said Anna Cowin, superintendent of Lake County Schools. (Watch helicopter tour reveal extent of tornado damage Video)

The boy, one of triplets, was killed along with his parents, while a sister, also one of the triplets, is in serious condition at a hospital, Cowin's office said.

Cowin also said a 7-year-old boy and his father were killed.

Officials in Sumter and Volusia counties, which also were hit, said they had no word of deaths. (Retirees live through a nightmare)

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency in Lake, Seminole, Sumter and Volusia counties.

He said he had spoken with President Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff regarding the importance of receiving federal aid.

In Lady Lake late Friday, Crist told CNN the storm damage was the worst he has ever seen in the state.

"It's like a bomb went off in central Florida," he said. (Watch governor praise 'heroes' in relief effort Video)

FEMA Director David Paulison and several staffers will go to Florida on Saturday or Sunday, a senior FEMA official told CNN.

Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson established a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. in the affected parts of the county.

"If we find anybody looting, we're going to deal with it," he said at an afternoon news conference.

He also asked would-be volunteers to stay away.

"We have everything in hand at this time," he said.

Volusia County officials preliminarily estimated property damage at $80 million.

The destruction in Paisley, in Lake County, was catastrophic.

"It looks like a total war zone about 300 yards wide," U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said after touring the region with Crist and others.

Progress Energy, the largest electricity provider in the region, reported at least 15,000 customers without power.

The National Weather Service confirmed that a "significant tornado event" occurred in Lake and Volusia counties.

Damage survey teams were to be sent into the areas after emergency crews completed their work so the weather service can determine the strength of the tornado and its exact path, the weather service said.

Residents say they had no warning

The weather service had warned that the storm was on the way, and local media had advised tornadoes were possible.

But many residents in the region said they did not know such a huge storm was coming.

There are no tornado sirens in the region.

State meteorologist Ben Nelson said "weather services in Melbourne and Tampa provided at least eight to 15 minutes of warning." The storm, Nelson said, "started to produce a tornado once it got into Sumter County" about 3 a.m.

Holly Smith, spokeswoman for the Volusia County Emergency Management Office, said a warning siren would not work in that county because it is "too large of an area." Authorities work closely with the media to get word out, she said.

'Complete devastation' in Lake County

Kevin Lenhart of Lake County Emergency Management said the storm came through at "the worst possible time" -- when people were sleeping.

It hit Sumter and Lake counties first. (Where the storm hit)

"We have complete devastation of homes, businesses, religious institutions. It was unlike perhaps even the hurricanes of 2004," said Christopher Patton of the Lake County Emergency Operations Center.

Among the worst-hit towns was Lady Lake in Lake County. Some mobile home parks in the area were thrashed, the department said.

A distraught young woman said her friend, a 17-year-old girl, was killed in one mobile home park. "I'm so sorry. I really am," she said, adding that she used to wait for the bus with the girl every morning.

An elementary school, Villages Elementary, was opened as a shelter.

The Church of God in Lady Lake was "completely demolished," said Lenhart of the emergency management agency. It's a Pentecostal church serving Lake, Sumter and Marion counties, according to its Web site.

Tractor-trailers blown off road

On Interstate 4 at State Road 44 in Volusia County, near central Florida's east coast, winds blew three tractor-trailer trucks off the road, along with a U-Haul truck that was towing a car.

A driver of one of the big rigs was pinned inside his vehicle by another tractor-trailer until authorities helped get him out.

"We saw tractor-trailers littered all over the interstate," said Kim Miller of the Florida Highway Patrol.

One of the trucks was partially "disintegrated" by the time authorities got to it, she said.

But amid all the accidents, no one was killed, and no serious injuries were reported, she said.

'We heard the train,' Volusia resident says

Volusia County Sheriff's Office spokesman Gary Davidson said the storm caused extensive damage in the DeLand area and trapped people across the city.

Johnson, the county's sheriff, said it has been "many, many years" since the area has seen "a storm of this magnitude."

And Holly Smith of the Volusia County Emergency Management Office told CNN of "massive devastation in some areas," with numerous building destroyed, including concrete and brick homes and some local health department offices.

"We heard the train," said one woman in Volusia County, referring to the sound an approaching tornado makes. The roof was torn off her house.

"We tried to make it in our walk-in closet. I made it. My husband didn't." (Watch residents recall the horror of the storm Video)

She said her husband ended up on the floor with the closet door on top of him as the storm lifted off the roof. Neither of them, she said, was seriously hurt.

The storm hit residential areas northwest of the airport in New Smyrna Beach.

Heavy rain and thunderstorms swept across nearby Orange County, but spokesman Greg Collins said there were no tornadoes and no deaths or injuries.

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Jack Hurst sent this photo of interior damage to one of his neighbor's houses in Lady Lake, Florida.



    Lake County Citizens Information Line: (352) 343-9732

    State of Florida 24-hour emergency hotline: (800) 342-3557


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