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Last Updated: Friday, 2 February 2007, 21:51 GMT
Florida struck by deadly tornado
A destroyed car sits in the garden of a house in The Villages, Florida

Severe thunderstorms and at least one tornado have left a trail of destruction and at least 19 people dead in Florida.

The storms ripped roofs off scores of houses and left thousands without power across a central swathe of the state.

Residents described severe storms and "almost continuous lightning".

The deaths occurred in Lake County, where some of the worst of the damage was reported. Rescuers spread out over the area to search for more victims.

The storms hit during the night, at about 0315 (0815 GMT), when most residents were sleeping.

Map of Florida

"It woke me out of a dead sleep," David Wholly told the Orlando Sentinel newspaper.

"I heard the noise, and it sounded like a train coming and I ran to the bathroom. The tree went right through the bedroom window where my head was."

Lake County official Kevin Lenhart told CNN television: "This storm moved in the middle of the night, so fast that it was the worst possible time, while people were sleeping."

"The death toll is up to 19 now," he said, updating the earlier figure of 14.

We have complete devastation of homes, of businesses, religious institutions
Christopher Patton
Emergency official

The dead included at least three people killed in the town of Lady Lake, where dozens of mobile homes were destroyed. A church in the town was demolished.

At least another 11 people died in nearby Paisley, Christopher Patton of the Lake County emergency operations centre said.

"We have complete devastation of homes, of businesses, religious institutions," he said.

Pastor Howard Roszak of the First Baptist Church in Paisley said two teenage boys who belonged to his church were killed.

One boy's father also died, while both parents of the other were killed too.

"I know all these kids real good. I love these kids. I hear there is nothing left... just absolutely nothing," Mr Roszak said.

'Shocked but grateful'

Hilary Hague, who lives in The Villages retirement complex near Lady Lake, told BBC News that the storms had started with severe lightning at about 2100 on Thursday night, followed by heavy rain.

Firefighters search for survivors after a tornado in Florida
Emergency workers have been combing the debris for survivors
"It got worse until about 3am, when there was almost continuous lightning. We went outside to check, and heard a huge whooshing sound so went back inside. We thought nothing more about it until we saw the damage this morning," she said.

While she and her husband had escaped relatively lightly, "houses nearby lost all their windows and roofs, and there were cars turned up onto their roofs".

She said local residents were "quite shocked - this is not a usual occurrence in this area - but also grateful" that they had apparently escaped the deaths and injuries suffered elsewhere.

Officials said emergency workers were searching through the rubble in the worst affected areas for more victims, while Florida Governor Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency in four counties.

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