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Baptist layman among fatalities of El Nino-driven Fla. Tornadoes

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Gordon Chandler, 80, a member of First Baptist Church, Winter Garden, was among the estimated 36 killed in a series of tornadoes that swept through central Florida the night of Feb. 22.
Several Florida Baptist churches reported that many homes of Baptists have been destroyed or damaged. At press time, churches were trying to get in touch with members despite downed power lines and areas sectioned off because of extensive damage.
Officials warn the death toll could climb higher once the affected area is scoured by search teams. In addition to those killed, an estimated 100 people were injured and more than 400 structures destroyed in the El Nino-driven storms.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, the deadliest tornado storm in state history cut a path from Daytona Beach to the Tampa Bay area, with Osceola, Orange, Seminole and Volusia counties being the hardest hit.
Florida Baptist disaster relief assessment crews were on site Feb. 23 to work with associations to provide needed assistance. Crews were dispatched to First Baptist churches of Winter Garden and Kissimmee, and Westview Baptist Church in Sanford.
Chandler, a widower, was killed when the tornado hit his Winter Garden trailer park. He has a daughter, Sharon Kelly, who is a member of Winter Garden’s First Baptist Church. The church reported that several members’ homes were destroyed or damaged.
The home of Mark Epperson, minister of music at First Baptist Church of Kissimmee, was destroyed after winds threw his car through the house, collapsing its walls. Epperson and his family were not injured.
“They were lucky they got out alive,” said Tim Wilder, pastor of the Kissimmee church. “Mark ran to his daughter’s room and just as he got there, the windows shattered. Mark grabbed her and they got into the closet where his wife was. They stayed in the closet until they heard the police knocking on doors, asking if there were still people there.”
Wilder said the storm hit hard and fast at 12:30 a.m. Sunday, with winds of more than 200 mph lasting only a minute or two.
“One member told me it sounded like a big train coming toward him,” he said.
By Monday, the Kissimmee church had received reports that one member had sustained minor injuries and other members’ homes were destroyed. The pastor said one senior adult man sustained a broken leg from flying debris in his house.
Wilder said many residents were still in shock a day after the storm. He said one member shared with him the horror he felt in finding three people dead in a mobile home park while searching for his father’s family, who had survived. But members are really pulling together, Wilder said. They are offering victims places to stay and distributing food and water.
A group of Campers on Mission, ministering to carnival workers at the Kissimmee Valley Fair, have joined relief efforts at First Baptist Church, Kissimmee, said state COM representative Ralph Edfelzt.
Sanford was one of the towns hardest hit but Dennis Littlejohn, pastor of Westview Baptist Church there, said the congregation escaped without any injuries or major damage to their homes. He said the Sanford congregation is helping member Jennifer Nelson’s parents, who lost their home on a street where the storm claimed the lives of four neighbors.
Sanford’s Central Baptist Church also escaped damage. The congregation joined other churches in the area collecting and distributing food and helping in the clean-up effort.
South Peninsula Baptist Church in Daytona Beach sent relief workers to Sanford as part of the Halifax Baptist Association’s disaster relief response team.
South Peninsula’s church building was one of several structures in Brevard County that sustained damage from a tornado the previous week. That storm ripped shingles off the roof, which have since been repaired, said pastor Charles Mims.
In addition, the storm pushed a tree through the roof of Emporia Baptist Church in Pierson, causing water damage to its Sunday school building. That earlier tornado also damaged First Baptist Church, Indialantic. Window panes and ceiling tiles were blown out and the preschool building had water damage.
Steve Benn, of Brevard County’s Emergency Management Division, said no fatalities or injuries had been reported from the most recent storm, but 22 homes had been damaged. In addition to the minor damage to homes, Benn reported extensive damage to several commercial structures at Cape Canaveral port.

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  • Kristi Hodge