LADY LAKE, Fla. (BP)–Within hours after killer tornados slammed into central Florida Feb. 2, Florida Baptist disaster relief and recovery teams were mobilized with chainsaws in hand to help victims. The storm cell that spurned a possible five tornados left at least 20 people dead and four counties in a state of emergency.
By noon Friday, Feb. 2, disaster relief teams from the Lake County and Marion County Baptist Associations were assessing damage and clearing debris. Association teams from Alachua, Harmony, Lafayette, Greater Orlando, Shiloh and South Florida also were activated and awaited assignments. In total, approximately 220 Baptist volunteers were mobilized.
“It was the scariest thing I have ever been through,” Rusty Freitay, a member of First Baptist Church in Lady Lake and part of the Lake County Baptist Association disaster relief team, said.
Freitay was in his trailer at the Lady Lake Mobile Home Park when a tornado touched down there around 3 a.m. Friday morning. His brother pulled him and his dog out of the debris and took them to safety. By 12:30 p.m., Freitay was back on site and had joined his disaster relief team in clearing trees that had fallen on his neighbors’ homes.
The mobile home park where Freitay lived and the homes on the surrounding streets were devastated, as pieces of people’s lives were strewn across roads and downed trees. Children’s toys and family photographs lay soaked and tattered atop piles of wood and metal that their owners had previously called home.
Many of the mobile homes were picked up off their concrete pads and found demolished in other areas of the park. The homes that survived had tree and water damage that rendered them uninhabitable. With nowhere to go and no means of helping themselves, victims sat on the ground beside the rubble of their lives and waited for help.
The Tukes family — John, Linda and their six children — was at home when a tornado came through their neighborhood, located behind the Lady Lake Mobile Home Park. They weathered the storm without injury, but when they surveyed the damage at daybreak they knew their home had not made it through. All of the trees in their yard had fallen, taking down their fence and putting a hole through their living room ceiling.
“We didn’t know what we were going to do,” Linda Tukes said.
Roy Henderson, a member of the Villages of Faith Baptist Church, and his team of men and women from Ocala, Leesburg and the surrounding areas, came to the Tukes’ rescue. They worked with the family to clear debris and cover the roof with tarps.
When the job was complete Friday afternoon they formed a prayer circle with the family. Bob Vanderventer, a member of the team, led the group in a tearful prayer for the family’s safekeeping and salvation. The Tukes family was all smiles as they thanked the disaster relief team and hugged them goodbye.
“This is why we’re here,” Henderson said as he held up a disaster relief tract that outlined the road to salvation. “We would help them all if we could.”
Fritz Wilson, director of Florida’s disaster relief and recovery, said Baptists were working operations in Deland, Lady Lake and Lake Mack following the tornadoes.
“This will be primarily a cleanup mission,” Wilson said. “We have already made a tremendous impact, with over 50 jobs completed.”
In areas like Lake Mack, where most homes are not salvageable, disaster relief workers are providing other aid.
“We are providing food supplies to First Baptist Church Paisley where they are sheltering victims from the Lake Mack area and will continue for as long as needed,” Wilson said.
Operation sites have been established at First Baptist Church in Deland and First Baptist Church in Leesburg. Disaster relief workers gained access to New Smyrna Sunday and may put some teams there, Wilson said. The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and the Mississippi Baptist Convention have pledged their support and are sending funds to help with the operation.
While no churches have reported severe damage, workers at Lake Yale Baptist Conference Center reported a tornado on its north campus. Pieces of a metal roof from the pump house were scattered among fallen limbs, and several oak and pine trees lay fallen across walkways and driveways, their massive roots exposed.
Power lines on the north campus were downed, leaving the area without power. Crews were on the scene repairing the damage Friday morning. Four of the dorms suffered roof and window damage, and the chapel steeple was found 30 feet behind the structure on the bank of Lake Yale.
A group of Campers on Mission from across the United States were staying in recreational vehicles on the south campus when the tornado went through Lake Yale.
“Had the tornado been on the south campus, it would have wiped us out,” Glenda Tumbleson, a Camper on Mission from Missouri, said. “You can’t tell me God’s not taking care of us.”
Tumbleson and the other campers began helping clear debris and make repairs at the north campus early Friday morning.
Lauren Urtel is a writer with the Florida Baptist Convention’s communications department.