Killer tornadoes sweep across FL

Faith-based volunteers respond quickly to help clean up damaged communities

BY VICKI DESORMIER | March 7, 2008

Clean-up -- Volunteers from the Florida Baptist Association remove trees from homes following the tornadoes.
Credit: Florida Baptist Association

Severe storms tore across north Florida and southeast Georgia, leaving at least two dead in the Tallahassee area, damaging buildings and cars and leaving thousands without power between Tallahassee and Jacksonville.

In Chaires, just east of Tallahassee, the National Weather Service reported two fatalities as a result of the storm, but could not yet confirm it had been a tornado or simply high winds that moved through the area.

Mark Prasek, disaster relief coordinator of the Florida Baptist Association, said his group put about a half a dozen volunteers to work within two hours after the storms moved through the area to begin clearing the debris from the affected area just east of Tallahassee. He said, despite continued rain in the area, the workers would be using chainsaws to cut up fallen trees and other hazards before moving on to some repair work on houses.

Jessica Geib, of the Capitol Area Chapter of the American Red Cross, said that immediately after the storms moved through, the organization set up a center to distribute food and water in the affected area. By the mid-afternoon, a shelter was set up at Chaires Elementary School. Geib said the number of homes damaged by the storm was small, so she wasn't sure how many people would take advantage of the place to sleep and eat, but they would be offering other services at the shelter as well.

Prasek, who was at the staging area for his group at the Wood Run Baptist Church in Tallahassee, about two miles from the storm ravaged site, said he had been told by workers at the scene that about eight houses had been damaged, including one on which a tree had fallen.

Kelly Godsey of the National Weather Service's Tallahassee office said assessment teams were still studying the storm to determine if the damage had been caused by a tornado or just strong winds. He reported that storm damage was also reported in Capitola, just east of Chaires, and Dekle Beach to the southeast of Tallahassee.

Geib said the area where the storms did the most damage was a rural area with lots of woods and that damage to homes and yards was not extensive, but there were lots of trees in the area that had been ripped apart and many torn from the ground. She said she believed it would take some time to open some streets leading into the affected areas.

Leon County Sheriff deputies secured the area shortly after the storms moved through with only residents and clean up crews allowed into the vicinity.

Prasek said he was expecting many more volunteers over the weekend from churches around the area to come to work at clearing debris and doing basic repairs on the houses that were damaged. He said he had received many calls from volunteers ready to pull on their gloves and move into the area.

Godsey said the weather was expected to settle to a partly sunny pattern with much cooler temperatures over the weekend, making conditions good for those who were expected to move into the area to help with the clean up. Prasek said he expected workers to arrive rain or shine.

The same storm system that went through Tallahassee continued east across the state toward Jacksonville on Friday and caused downed trees and power lines through the area around Lake City. There were several overturned cars in that area as well as damage to at least one structure according to the National Weather Service's Jacksonville office. Power outages were also reported for the whole city of Live Oak.

A related weather system moved south through central Florida by mid afternoon on Friday. Much of the area was under a tornado watch until early evening. According to meteorologist Julie Broughton, the unsettled weather could cause severe thunderstorms, strong winds and, possibly hail. The storms could last into early Saturday morning throughout Central Florida.

No damage had been reported in the Central Florida area, though there have been some isolated reports of power outages in the area.

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