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Fla. begins cleanup from deadly storms

4 places declared disaster areas

Crosses were removed from the rubble of a church that was built to withstand winds of up to 150 miles per hour. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

LADY LAKE, Fla. -- Pulling blue tarpaulins over the houses that still had walls, neighbors, jail inmates, and National Guard troops began cleanup work in the rain yesterday after tornado-bearing thunderstorms ripped through central Florida, killing at least 20 people.

The victims ranged from a 92-year-old man to 17-year-old Brittany May, killed by a falling tree that crushed her bedroom.

President Bush designated four counties as disaster areas, releasing millions of dollars in aid for recovery and individual assistance.

"It makes you sick to your stomach for what we saw," David Paulison, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said after touring the area yesterday morning with Governor Charlie Crist.

At least one tornado, with winds estimated at up to 200 miles per hour, hit between 3 and 4 a.m. Friday, when few people were awake to hear tornado warnings on radio and television.

The cleanup task was daunting yesterday as showers soaked roofless homes and piles of twisted aluminum siding, bricks, belongings, tree limbs, and lumber. Power lines were down and traffic signals out in many areas.

Neighbors helped Sherry Reeves, 48, sort through her belongings and patch a big hole in her roof. Reeves was amazed that her home wasn't leveled like hundreds of others in this area about 50 miles north of Orlando.

"The Good Lord slipped and missed -- or luck of the draw," she said.

The governor, handling the first natural disaster since he took office, said some stricken areas looked like "the surface of the moon." Crist canceled plans to attend the Super Bowl today in Miami to stay in central Florida.

Crist praised residents and charitable groups that helped in the cleanup. Neighboring Marion County sent a group of low-risk inmates, dressed in green-and-white striped jail clothes.

Some religious groups served food to rescue workers and victims, while about 40 National Guard members distributed blankets, food, and water.

"This is not just government. This is people helping people and doing what's right," Crist said at a news conference with Paulison, US Senators Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez, and other officials.

Paulison said his agency, criticized for inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, had housing trailers, water trucks, and other aid on the way. Bush's disaster declaration for Lake, Sumter, Seminole, and Volusia counties also frees up loans and other assistance to individuals.

Tate Tapscott, 38, who lives in an area called Cooter Lake, searched for neighbors after the storm and found a father and son dead, buried under debris.

"He was still holding on to his son," Tapscott said.

Jamie Wright, a retired school bus driver, had fled South Florida a year ago to escape hurricanes, looking for a peaceful life farther north. Wright, 55, and her boyfriend, Donald Lamond, 49, were killed in their bed.

"We survived Hurricane Andrew in Homestead and it looked just like this," her son, Bryan McKiness, said as he collected mementos from the wreckage of his mother's home. "Mom said she'd had enough of hurricanes so she moved here. "

The wind picked up one tractor-trailer rig and slammed it down on top of another one. A church built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane was destroyed.

The National Weather Service sent teams to study the damage for clues to the intensity and path of the thunderstorms. Dave Sharp, a meteorologist with the weather service's office in Melbourne, said officials suspected the region was struck by more than one tornado.

The main damage occurred along a 70-mile, west-to-east path with at least one break between Lady Lake and Paisley.

In the Paisley-Lake Mack area, a twister may have reached the fourth level of a new five-point tornado intensity scale, putting its wind speed in the range of 166 to 200 miles per hour, said Bart Hegemeyer, a member of the weather service research team.

The weather service had announced that it was changing the Fujita Scale, a 35-year-old system of ranking a tornado's strength, to align wind speeds more closely with actual damage.

Under the old system, an F-5 tornado -- considered the most powerful of tornadoes -- was capable of destroying a typical frame house, with wind speeds estimated at 261 to 318 miles per hour. Under the Enhanced Fujita scale, a tornado rating a 5 has winds of more than 200 miles per hour.