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Tornado And Storms Send Florida Reeling More Than 100 Homes Destroyed In Twister

Sun., Dec. 28, 1997

Tess Bentley knew the high-pitched whine that woke her early Saturday was a tornado. She took two steps and dived into her bedroom closet full of clothes.

Within seconds, Bentley, 48, and her two-bedroom house were spinning in the air. She was still in her closet when her home landed upside down on top of a neighbor’s house about 50 yards away.

More than 100 homes were damaged by the tornado that tore through the Lake Region Mobile Village, a retirement community 35 miles southwest of Orlando. The twister - part of a series of storms that swamped Florida’s Gulf Coast - left four residents hospitalized, but none of the injuries were life-threatening.

Bentley suffered only bumps and bruises.

“She’s our own little Dorothy,” neighbor Dick Runge said. “If this isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is.”

Bentley’s home landed on Peg and Carmon Howe’s two-bedroom house down the street. Bentley, who had been alone in her home, was trapped for two hours underneath siding, shelves and insulation before rescuers freed her from the debris.

“I said, ‘This isn’t my kitchen. I’m in Carmon’s kitchen,” she said. “I didn’t understand that I was in their house.”

Howe suffered a broken back but was released from the hospital. Her husband, uninjured, escaped through a window.

The storms destroyed 53 mobile homes in Haines City, and severely damaged another 10 in nearby Winter Haven, said Jill Weinischke of the Polk County emergency management services.

Fire rescue crews used rubber boats to evacuate frail and elderly residents at a mobile home park in Clearwater.

In the Tampa Bay area, homes, businesses and intersections in low-lying areas were flooded up to 4 feet deep because Saturday’s storms followed three days of rain that had already saturated the soil.

The month has been the wettest on record for the area, with Tampa receiving more than 15 inches of rain. It normally gets less than two.

There were no immediate damage estimates.

In Bentley’s neighborhood, aluminum siding was stuck in tree branches 40 feet above the ground, and siding and insulation were scattered on the ground alongside shattered glass.

Bentley’s parents picked up the belongings they could find from their daughter’s home.

They found unbroken bottles of Amaretto and Chablis and two stuffed teddy bears, but they hadn’t found one of Bentley’s most prized possessions: the copper box containing the ashes of her late husband.

Tags: weather

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