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Storms in Florida Kill at Least 26

February 23, 1998

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ El Nino-driven tornadoes ripped across central Florida early today, killing at least 26 people and destroying hundreds of homes while sparing the state’s most popular tourist sites. Two people were missing.

``We’ve had so many touchdowns we can’t keep track of them,″ said Angela Braden, spokeswoman for the Seminole County sheriff’s office. ``Some people slept right through it. They woke up and their house was gone.″

The twisters missed the three major theme parks in the Orlando area _ Walt Disney World, Universal Studios Florida and Sea World, which opened for business as usual today.

Just southeast of Disney World, however, one person was killed in the Osceola County city of Kissimmee.

Tornadoes were reported from Daytona Beach on the Atlantic Coast to the Tampa Bay area on the Gulf Coast. The bulk of the stormy weather had moved up the East Coast today. Georgia also was affected, with floods closing roads and schools today after as much as 5 inches of rain fell Sunday.

Some of the tornadoes may have had wind speeds as high as 210 mph, said forecaster Bob Ebaugh of the National Weather Service.

President Clinton said today he was sending representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including FEMA director James Lee Witt, to the tornado area.

Most of the deaths were scattered through three or four neighborhoods in counties around the Orlando region.

``It is the greatest loss of life from a tornadic event in Florida history,″ said Jim Lushine, a meteorologist with the weather service in Miami. Detailed records only go back to 1950, he said.

Ten people were killed in Seminole County, county public safety spokeswoman Paula Ritchey said. She said earlier official reports of 13 deaths may have been caused by miscounting by public authorities. Much of the county’s damage late Sunday and early today was near the Sanford airport just northeast of Orlando.

Sanford resident Eugene Walton was trying to rush his family out of the house to safety when a tree hit the garage and he threw himself on top of his wife and daughters.

``We were lying there and I felt water falling on my foot. I looked up and saw the stars, the whole roof was gone,″ Walton said. ``If you saw the house, you would wonder how we got out of there with our lives.″

Roofs ripped from homes littered fields. Pink insulation and shiny sheet metal from mobile homes hung high in trees like giant confetti. Near one house, a red pickup truck was tossed into the top of a tree.

``We just hid in the bathtub until it was over,″ said John Burch, whose house lost its roof.

In Osceola County to the southeast, at least 14 people died and 200 structures were damaged, said Jeter Walker, emergency management spokesman.

``Big, big tornadoes did this,″ Walker said.

One tornado shredded the Ponderosa Park campground behind Osceola County stadium, spring-training home of the Houston Astros, killing seven people.

Elsewhere in the county, six people were killed in the Buenaventura Lakes area, where an 86,000-square-foot shopping center was reduced to twisted metal and exposed concrete.

``It’s just a facade. Everything behind it was torn up,″ said Stephen LaFreniere, manager of the 27-store strip mall.

In Volusia County, a man was killed when his trailer home was destroyed, sheriff’s investigator Derrick Clark said. The man’s girlfriend heard the roar of the approaching storm and ran next door for safety, but he refused to go. The trailer was demolished in the three minutes she was gone.

Two other people were unaccounted for early today near Lake Harney, just northeast of Orlando, Clark said. Officials also rescued a boater whose craft apparently capsized.

``We’re looking at a wide path of destruction along Highway 92 here″ between Orlando and Sanford, Clark said.

In Orange County, one person died at a retirement community west of Orlando, fire rescue Lt. Vincent Preston said.

Three tornadoes touched down in the town of Winter Garden, said Jean Moe, Orange County’s assistant division commander. The roof of a convenience store was ripped off, and several cars were blown away from a parking lot in another area of the county, she said.

About 100 mobile homes were damaged or destroyed in the county, and three of the four buildings in the Country Gardens apartment complex were damaged, Preston said.

``All of the power in this area has been severed because of the tornado,″ Preston said.

The winter storm was partially caused by the wind patterns and conditions directed by El Nino, said Ebaugh of the weather service.

The Pacific warm-water phenomenon is blamed for a number of unusual weather patterns around the world, including the series of storms in California that have caused an estimated $475 million in damage. The latest rainstorm hit Southern California early today.

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