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Picking up the pieces

By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN, Times Staff Writer
Published February 2, 2008


The tornadoes first touched down about 3 a.m. They moved from west to the east, from Lake County to Volusia County, ripping trees out of the ground and slinging bricks across cow pastures. Homes were flattened and roofs chewed off. "It looked like Godzilla came through town," recalled Lady Lake police Chief Ed Nathanson. Twenty-one people died, including a triplet and his parents; a 16-year-old girl crushed by a tree; and a father, who in his final act, wrapped his young son in his arms. Today, the one-year anniversary of some of the deadliest tornadoes in Florida history, we revisit some of the people and places forever changed that day.

'We're still puzzled over how we weren't harmed more'

Ever since the tornado, Gene Suggs paces when bad weather rumbles. A weather alert radio blares from a dresser near his wife's closet, built as a safe room to withstand strong winds. They're in a new home now, one reinforced with concrete, but he cannot sleep.

"I was being elevated, the house was crumbling, the roof was falling," he recalls about that night. "It was so cold."

He still wells up when he talks about his wife trapped in their bed, pinned under a wall and screaming for help. He lifted the wall off her and they made their way to a bathroom, which was the only room standing. The moon lit up the night as cold raindrops pelted them. They wrapped themselves in blankets and quilts from the linen closet and prayed together. They thanked God for sparing them and asked him to watch over their children and grandchildren.

By daybreak, 52 prisoners from Marion County were on their 10-acre property cleaning up the rubble, friends from church were sifting through brick and broken furniture for salvageable items, and neighbors had arrived with vats of chili.

They had collected 50 years of belongings and lost almost everything. A friend found Gene Suggs' teeth; a prisoner found his pocketknife. A boy brought Edna Suggs her ring and a watch. A clock froze at 3:15 a.m.

By that afternoon, their insurance company had handed them a check and the rebuilding began.

Today, their new home has three bedrooms and two baths and is bathed in sunlight that floods through dormers.

"We're still puzzled over how we weren't harmed more than we were," Gene Suggs says. "It was a blessing. We can't define it any other way."

Becky Nolan: robbed of a husband and a son

It was a beautiful evening. Becky and Billy Nolan sat on the front porch of their mobile home on Cooter Pond Road and took it all in. Their boys, 11-year-old Edwin and 7-year-old Jacob, were asleep. The couple had been struggling financially, but things were looking better.

"Let's never have to start over again," Billy said to her as they headed for bed.

Becky Nolan awoke to her husband's screams. A cruel wind battered their mobile home as they crawled along the floor toward their boys.

Becky grabbed Edwin and ran outside just as the tornado lifted their home and splintered it into pieces. She woke up facedown in the mud with a black eye and a broken collarbone; Edwin sobbed nearby. A friend drove them to the hospital where she searched for Jacob, who a year earlier had lost his right eye in a horseback riding accident.

"Have you seen a little boy with a glass eye?" she cried.

Billy was found dead beneath fallen trees and debris. Jacob was also dead, wrapped tightly in his father's arms.

For days, Becky Nolan was in a daze. She sprayed Gio Armani, her husband's favorite cologne, on his shirt, even though he was being cremated. She held Jacob's cold, rubbery hands in hers and wept wildly, remembering how soft and warm they once were.

All around her, neighbors began rebuilding. New homes and trailers popped up. She has spent the last year crying, frustrated and unhappy. While she waits for her turn for a new house, she lives on the same property in a replacement trailer, yards from where her husband and son died.

Jacob's saddle sits on her wall unit. She pulls a pair of his size 21/2 boots from the shelf.

"He wore these shoes every day," she says, bringing them to her nose and inhaling deeply.

She pulls out a card Jacob made in school. His picture is pasted inside its flower bud. Each petal lists a reason why he loves his mother. She gives me a kiss before I go to bed, I have cool toys. She lets me go to the store with her.

Billy's cologne sits on top of her television set.

Starting over has been hard.

Lady Lake Church of God: 'It was a gift ...'

In the days after the tornado, which obliterated the old domed building that was home to the Lady Lake Church of God, members gathered as the pastor preached underneath the open sky.

Today, there is a concrete slab where the 31-year-old tin structure once stood. But a sign proclaims: "We are still here!!!"

"Here" is a few miles south, where they have found a temporary home inside a former car dealership. Eggplant-colored chairs fill the showroom floor. Overflow is directed to the glass-enclosed sales booths. The choir sings from metal risers.

They meet here for services while waiting for their new home, a $2.1-million building, scheduled to be completed 10 months from now.

After the tornado, about $600,000 in donations poured in, and the church got a grant for about $75,000. The building was insured for about $1-million, Lynn says.

They have 272 members, 50 more than last year.

"(The tornado) has plugged us into the community in a greater way," the Rev. Larry Lynn says. "It was a gift, but it came in an ugly package."'You can rebuild'

Sharon Styx remembers a sizzling sound. It was drizzling outside, but there was no lightning.

"It was eerie," she said.

She got out of bed and walked into the living room to shut off her computer. Then she heard "a freight train."

She grabbed her 10-year-old granddaughter and pulled her into the bathroom, the only room in the house without a window, and screamed for her 16-year-old grandson. They trembled in the small room in silence, listening to their world being ripped apart. Trees snapped like toothpicks.

"You can hear the wind whipping, and then it was gone," she said.

The tornado uprooted oak trees that once shaded the homes on Winner's Circle. A giant limb pierced her roof and landed in her living room. Another tree flattened her two cars. Jiggles the hamster survived.

They got dressed but didn't know what to do, so they sat and waited. When the sun came up, strangers brought them hot meals and restaurants rolled in with catering trucks. People offered them money for groceries. She never did find her patio furniture, but she's okay with it.

"It's a pleasure to get soaking wet and your things ruined because you can rebuild," said Styx, who was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months later. "If you lose your life, there's nothing."

Mobile home park: 46 of 70 remain

The tornado roared in and ate its way through the small mobile home park on Sunshine Boulevard, occupied by a tightly knit group of senior citizens. Three residents were killed; 36 of the 70 homes were demolished, and just four homes escaped with minor damage.

Rescue workers converged on the site, awestruck by the devastation. The mayor and the police chief scoured the rubble. A man from Tampa pulled up in a truck and began preparing omelets. Members from a church in Kentucky handed victims $100 bills until $10,000 was disbursed. The town of Lady Lake pumped $1.6-million into the cleanup effort in the first 60 days, with much of the money going to the mobile home park.

"It was so overwhelming," Mayor Max Pullen says, recalling one resident who lost his teeth and was hungry.

Today, owner Susan Kern struggles to stay afloat. Residents either moved away or couldn't afford to rebuild, leaving the park with just 46 mobile homes. Those who stayed behind have been busy creating a memorial garden in honor of their neighbors who died. There will be a dedication ceremony today.

The tornadoes first touched down after 3 a.m. near Interstate 75 and moved east through The Villages and other communities. Homes damaged or destroyed numbered 1,500. Total cost of destruction: $160-million.