Facing life without family

A victim of the Feb. 2 tornadoes tries to move on without her husband and son.

Published March 3, 2007

LAKE MACK Becky Nolan sprinkled handfuls of her husband's ashes beside a muddy retention pond this week. Then she got a gun. Her house is gone. So is the wood fence they built together. One month ago, tornadoes ripped through Central Florida, killing Nolan's 37-year-old husband, William, her 7-year-old son, Jake, and at least seven of her neighbors. Twelve other people died from injuries sustained during the Feb. 2 tornadoes that caused more than $150-million in damage.

Hundreds of homes were demolished or abandoned. Tangled masses of rubble have been replaced by empty lots, covered with sand and mud. Signs say "No Trespassing" and "For Sale."

But Nolan, 28, plans to stay on Cooter Pond Road with her 11-year-old son, Edwin. Donations and FEMA money will help her buy the land they called home for a decade.

"My husband died there, my baby died there," Nolan said, standing outside a temporary trailer where she has stayed for several weeks. "And they will always be there."

She bought a .45 automatic at a pawn shop to protect the property.

"No one's going to scare me," she said. "If it comes down to it, I will do what I have to do."

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Throughout the wide swath of tornado-damaged land, residents like Nolan say they are determined to bounce back and rebuild.

Since the storm hit, crews have been working daily to clean up debris. In Lake County, 125,555 cubic yards of debris have been hauled away.

Officials here estimate $26.3-million in damage, including 385 damaged and 185 destroyed structures.

That's significantly lower than the $62-million damage estimate in Sumter County and the $60.4-million damage estimate in Volusia County.

But such damage estimates don't tell the whole story. Every one of the 21 people who died lived in Lake County. And all of them lived in mobile homes.

* * *

So far, 30 FEMA trailers have arrived in Lake County. Several are at Lady Lake's Sunshine Mobile Home Park, where three people died when the tornado hit.

Residents who remain say they're shaken up, but staying put.

"We feel comfortable here, even though there was a tornado," said Wesley Lester, 79.

He lay in the bathtub with his wife, Fay, as the tornado tore apart their home of eight years. Their 92-year-old next-door neighbor died.

On Wednesday, Lester spent the morning raking the back yard of the mobile home where he plans to move, just a few blocks away.

"I'm not too worried about it. I think I'll sleep pretty good at night," he said. "We have a weather radio now."

As hammers clanked and bulldozers beeped nearby, Allen VanAtta stood with his hands on his hips, surveying a few saplings in his new front yard. The storm destroyed the Sunrise Drive mobile home where he lived for 10 winters.

"It took me and the bed right off the floor and shook," the 81-year-old retired welder said. "I don't want to go through that again."

Still, he plans to move into a mobile home on the other side of the park in less than a week. "I'm still shook up," he said, "but it's a good deal, and it's a good park."

Just outside the park on Alma Street, Louise Thomas wept and fell to the ground last week as she watched crews demolish the mobile home where she lived for 15 years.

She wore a Wonder Woman baseball hat and helped sort out clothes at the Operation Compassion tent across the street, where more than 2,000 volunteers have helped tornado victims since Feb. 2.

The 87-year-old retired nurse's aide said she also plans to stay.

"I can't live anywhere else," she said. "I'm a Florida cracker."

* * *

FEMA representatives and emergency supplies arrived in Central Florida the day after the tornadoes hit. But two disaster centers close today because so few people are seeking help.

In Lake County, officials considered deactivating the Emergency Operations Center, but news of severe weather looming Thursday night caused them to reconsider, said spokesman Christopher Patton.

The county has urged residents to purchase weather radios.

"It's the perfect way to try and protect your family," he said.

* * *

On Thursday Becky Nolan sobbed as she flipped through a smeared and water-stained photo album for the first time since the tornado.

Jake on his new dirt bike. Jake riding a pony. Photos from the day she married Billy Nolan - Sept. 26, 1998.

Now nothing looks like the pictures of lush greenery and happy family activities that friends and neighbors picked out of the rubble, she said. "It looks like the pit of hell."

Nolan will return to work next week, helping make metal frames for prefabricated homes. Soon she will receive a new mobile home, donated by a family in Georgia. "If I could afford to have a house built, you'd better believe I would," she said.

She wants to return to normal life, but knows that's not possible. "I just want to go back to the way it was, and it never will," she said. "It will always be like this now."

Always remembering the last time she kissed her son good night, and the last words her husband said to her: "I got Jake."

Always hearing the sounds of the storm. Roaring winds. Ripping metal. Screaming.

Always seeing the scar where surgeons inserted a metal plate to support her broken collar bone.

"Now I'm made of steel," she said, wiping away a tear.

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or (352) 860-7309.

By the numbers

Here's a look at the FEMA assistance for victims of Florida's Feb. 2 tornadoes:

2,340 people requesting some form of assistance

$2.6-million in grants approved

$14.9-million in loans approved by the U.S. Small Business Administration

2,872 visits to FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers

Source: FEMA