El Nino-driven tornadoes ripped across central Florida early Monday, killing 38 people and destroying hundreds of homes while sparing the state’s most popular tourist sites. At least 10 people were missing and more than 250 were injured.
“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 Orlando area’s three major theme parks - Walt Disney World, Universal Studios Florida and Sea World, which opened for business as usual.
Just southeast of Disney World, however, one person was killed in the Osceola County city of Kissimmee.
That was one of 18 deaths in Osceola County. Eleven others were confirmed dead near Sanford, in Seminole County about 20 miles northeast of Orlando. Three were killed in Orange County and one in Volusia County. The reports of people missing were scattered across the region.
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 was moving up the East Coast. In Georgia, floods closed schools a day after as much as 5 inches of rain fell.
Some of the tornadoes may have had wind speeds as high as 210 mph, said Bob Ebaugh of the National Weather Service.
More than 135,000 people in central Florida lost power at the height of the storms, utilities estimated.
President Clinton said he was sending representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including FEMA director James Lee Witt, to the tornado area.
By comparison with this storm, Hurricane Andrew killed 32 people as it tore through the Bahamas, south Florida and Louisiana in 1992.
Most of the deaths were scattered through three or four neighborhoods in counties around the Orlando region.
Much of Seminole County’s damage 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 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.”
Fields were littered with roofs ripped from homes. Pink insulation and shiny sheet metal from mobile homes hung high in trees like giant confetti. Near one house, a red pickup truck was suspended in the branches of a tree.
“We just hid in the bathtub until it was over,” said John Burch, whose house lost its roof.
In Osceola County southeast of Orlando, 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, causing seven of the county’s deaths.
Elsewhere in the county, six of the other deaths were in the Buenaventura Lakes area, where an 86,000-square-foot shopping center was reduced to twisted metal and exposed concrete.