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At the Villages, sense of safety is shattered

Officials estimate that 1,200 homes in the Villages were damaged or leveled.

By Alex Leary and Catherine E. Shoichet
Published February 3, 2007


THE VILLAGES - Paul Donahue stepped up onto a couch, trying to balance amid a grotesque heap of metal and glass, then reached for a slab of drywall.

Behind it, he retrieved a painting of a sun-dappled cottage on Martha's Vineyard. The artist titled it Morning Splendor.

"This was our Martha's Vineyard," Donahue said, looking at the ruins of the home he and his wife, Beverly, moved into three days after Christmas. "This was our dream."

The Donahues, like many who have made the Villages one of the fastest-growing areas of Florida, came here to begin retirement.

They were drawn by friends who had already moved from Massachusetts, relatively affordable property and a seemingly endless menu of activities, from golf to woodworking class to scuba diving.

And the location.

"We were going to buy a place in Pompano Beach," said Beverly Donahue, 68. "But with all the hurricanes we said, 'Forget that.' This seemed safer in the middle."

With frightening precision and wrath, Friday's tornado erased that perception.

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Officials estimate that 1,200 homes in the Villages were damaged or leveled, as in the Donahues' case.

Three dozen people were treated for minor injuries, and a handful were sent to the hospital. But unlike a mobile home park only a few miles away in Lady Lake, no one died at the Villages.

The perceived safety is not only a byproduct of geography.

The development, which straddles Lake, Sumter and Marion counties, has a whimsical feel, with homes tracing the contours of 28 golf courses.

Contained within the community are restaurants, movie theaters, a hospital and a microbrewery.

It has its own newspaper, The Villages Daily Sun, and a cable news channel. Children under 18 cannot stay more than 30 days a year.

"This is an adult playland," said Gene Parent, 61, who moved here 14 months ago from Nashua, N.H.

Throughout the winding network of streets, sidewalks and golf cart paths, signs describe the Villages as "Florida's Friendliest Hometown!"

Crews are building homes by the hundreds, fast meeting the prediction that the number of "Villagers," as denizens call each other, will swell from 60,000 to 100,000 by 2010.

Ed Frederick bought a new 2,000-square-foot home in the Village of Mallory Square last year for $270,000. In November, he and his wife, Barbara, left Concord, Mass., and moved in.

"We were just sitting out here a couple of days ago saying, 'Wow, what a wonderful house. Wow, what a great place.'"

Friday, a tornado smashed windows, ripped off the roof and hurtled patio furniture into his home, "like missiles," he said.

Frederick was left with a pulverized house and a black eye. His brother's home 6 miles away was untouched.

"My wife said she would never live in a retirement community," laughed Tom Hagadorn, 58, a former math teacher from upstate New York. "But we came down to stay with friends for four days and bought a home a week later."

They also shied away from living on the coast, mindful of hurricanes, but mostly were attracted to the amenities and nonthreatening environment.

"People don't lock their doors here, like the olden days. You can leave your golf clubs on the golf cart and go into a restaurant and nobody will steal them," said Linda McKenna, 59, who moved from Pinellas County in October.

As the storm hit, tearing holes in her home and spraying glass, McKenna gripped her husband in bed and prayed. The wind sucked the pillow from under her head.

"I knew right there I was a goner," she said. "But when it was over there was not a scratch. Nothing." She stepped over a tree in the living room and pointed to the lid from a garbage can, blown from a recreation center a few hundred yards away.

Just a few miles away Saturday, golf carts whirred, tennis balls bounced and retention ponds fountains bubbled. But not everything was business as usual. The Villages Rotary Club postponed an annual chili cook-off expected to draw more than 10,000 people.

At the Laurel Manor Recreation Center, which some residents used as a shelter Friday night, more than 40 handwritten notes were mounted on an easel by the door. Many of them offered to accommodate displaced residents.

"People in the Villages become your family when you move here," said Sharon Dunaway, 62, as she shoved the few belongings she salvaged from her rental home into a Toyota SUV. "People that come down here are all in the same boat. They all left family behind."

Don Burkhart's mangled golf cart sat in a clearing more than 50 feet from his Village of Caroline home. The tornado ripped off the garage and took the golf cart with it. But a special license plate remained firmly attached: "It's always a Beautiful Day in the Villages."

"It still is," Burkhart said. "There's just so much to do. And the people are so darned friendly. It's amazing."

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The friendly spirit was on display at the Donahues' home nearby. Friends helped the couple recover a few possessions. Their dryer, with a fresh load of clothes inside; a dozen bottles of liquor; an antique clock; a bag of potting soil.

But mostly, it was gone.

As Paul Donahue, 67, reached for the Martha's Vineyard painting behind the drywall, a soggy card with a purple flower on the front lay near his feet.

Inside, it read:

"Dear Bev & Paul. Thank you for your thoughtfulness. We had a great weekend. Your home is just beautiful. Love Jerry + Rose O."