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'It's like a bad nightmare'

As the storm hits, houses shake, trees are uprooted, and cars are tossed about. A 6-foot-4, 280-pound man is lifted into the air and holds on to his mattress.

By Times Staff Writer
Published February 3, 2007


NEW SMYRNA BEACH - Janell Ledger, 43, often hears trains rumbling in the distance, but Friday morning was different: It was 10 times louder.

She screamed for her 18-year-old daughter, Samantha, and the two clutched each other on the hallway floor. Suddenly, Ledger's bedroom door was ripped from its hinges and slammed her on the back, shielding the two from flying glass and debris that roiled through the house.

"We were huddling down with our eyes closed, praying for it to end," Ledger said. "You'll never forget it. It's like a bad nightmare and you wonder are you ever going to wake up from it."

* * *

Ledger's home was one of a dozen destroyed or severely damaged on a single block of Nordman Avenue in New Smyrna Beach, a town of 17,500 wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway just north of Cape Canaveral.

The storm snapped trees or uprooted them altogether. It pulled vehicles from driveways, turned them and dragged them 50 feet. It sheared walls, then left a closet full of clothes untouched.

It took homes, but left the people.

John Morrison, 47, was sound asleep at 4:25 a.m. when his bedroom window blew out. He said his room filled with swirling winds that lifted him in the air. At 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, he gripped his mattress as the wind pulled him 6 inches in the air and spun the bed 45 degrees. Two walls and the roof of his bedroom flew away.

"I felt like I was Dorothy," he said, referring to a character from The Wizard of Oz.

* * *

At least five crashes occurred in a quarter-mile stretch near Interstate 4's New Smyrna Beach exit, closing the highway for about three hours.

In one case, a semitrailer truck was lifted up and dropped on another semi, pinning the driver of the second semi in his cab, the Highway Patrol reported. The driver was not seriously injured.

Building in ruins, church carries on

LADY LAKE - For more than 20 years, the steel-frame Lady Lake Church of God stood strong. But storms tore through the church Friday, flattening it into a mangled mess of aluminum, steel and insulation.

"This was ground zero," said Martin Taylor, an administrative bishop for the Church of God in Florida. Taylor estimated it would cost at least $2-million to rebuild the church.

Friday afternoon, many of the congregation's 232 members surveyed the damage and offered support. The church's plight drew national media attention, including a visit from Katie Couric of CBS News and CNN.

The congregation will gather for services in front of the church at 10:45 a.m. Sunday.

"The building is down but the church is still strong," pastor Larry Lynn said.

* * *

From an aerial view, the destruction seemed to worsen from west to east.

In the Villages retirement community, hundreds of tidy, single-story homes sat untouched. Then, in a cluster of houses bordering a fairway, there was destruction, with roofs torn off, kitchens and living rooms exposed.

In Lady Lake off U.S. 27, mobile homes were reduced to their foundations.

On one street, an overturned citrus truck left a brilliant mess of thousands of oranges.

There were scenes of triumph, too. At the site of a demolished church, a man labored in the middle of the rubble to hoist a flagpole. Nearby, people formed a circle in the parking lot and clapped.

Moving eastward, several houses in a lakefront development had their guts ripped out. In the tiny town of Paisley, entire mobile homes were blown to bits.

There was more wreckage about 5 miles east in Lake Beresford near the St. Johns River. A neighborhood of ranch-style homes was torn apart.

And in DeLand, the storm made its mark near busy U.S. 17, ripping the green awning off a shopping center, then jumping across the highway into another mobile home park where it demolished at least 10 residences.