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Charley roars across Central Florida

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Hurricane Charley battered Central Florida on Friday night, packing 105-mph winds that tore off roofs, snapped trees like twigs and left hundreds of thousands of residents without power.

And as the cleanup began, there were fears that electricity outages at wastewater plants could lead to backed-up sewers. Officials said it could be days before all of the power is restored.

Early damage reports were sketchy, but it was clear Charley caused significant destruction throughout Central Florida. There were widespread reports of trees falling on homes and storm-related fires.

Though high winds caused much of the damage, there were several unconfirmed reports of tornadoes in Orange, Seminole and Volusia counties.

When the storm appeared to have passed, some residents went outside with flashlights to ď survey the wreckage and clear downed branches and trees from streets and driveways.

Downtown Orlando resembled a ghost town, with trees broken along Orange Avenue and awnings ripped from local establishments.

"It was pretty crazy," said Justin Sullivan, 27, a partner in the Red Square lounge in downtown Orlando, as he surveyed two fallen trees nearby.

"We were mopping and watching the trees snapping. It sounded like a train."

An elderly woman with a poncho was seen pushing a grocery cart packed with clothes around downtown Orlando.Pat Harris, 58, said she was homeless but did not want any help.

"Right now, I don't have a place to stay."

In Thornton Park and around Lake Eola, trees were down and power was out. Some residents went outside to party.

"We want to have fun," said Bryan Slater, 23, who lives in an apartment building overlooking Lake Eola.

"No businesses are open and it's scary to see 100-mph winds," he said. "So, everyone said, 'Let's have a party.'"

By 9:30 p.m., there was only one storm-related death reported in Central Florida. A young girl was killed in a traffic accident on the Beeline Expressway when a tractor-trailer lost control in high winds and rolled on top the car she was in.

The leading edge of the storm began battering Osceola County about 8 p.m. as Charley ripped its way diagonally through Central Florida. By 9:15 p.m., Orlando International Airport was reporting wind gusts of 105 mph and sustained winds of 90 mph.

At Wellesley Inn in Kissimmee, the wind blew air conditioners off their mountings and sent Ana Rodriguez, 58, from San Juan, Puerto Rico, into the hallway to pray in Spanish.

"Pray to the Lord and sing. Pray to the Lord and sing," she chanted as she held hands with other vacationers stranded at the hotel. She said the words gave her peace.

The power went out about 8:35 p.m. and candles set off fire alarms. The walls of the hotel shook, but Rodriguez says she trusts God and that her life is in his hands. In 1988, she lived through another hurricane.

"I prayed to the Lord and we were OK."

The storm, the first hurricane to pass through Orlando in 44 years, forced about 14,000 residents in a five-county area to flee their homes. Many of them filled shelters throughout the region.

Most of the Central Florida damage reports were coming in from Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties.

Lake County was spared the brunt of the storm. As it passed, reports of wind gusts in excess of 75 mph were reported in Four Corners and in excess of 80 mph in Okahumpka, near Leesburg, but wind gusts were much less.

There were some reports of flooding in low-lying areas and rising water in traditional problem spots, such as Astor along the St. Johns River.

Local government officials will be out in force at first light assessing damage.

Charley's impact was felt early in the day, hours before its winds arrived.

The first serious storm-related accident in Central Florida occurred at 4:15 p.m. Friday on the Beeline Expressway where a young girl was killed and five others were injured when the wind forced a tractor-trailer to spiral out of control and land on a car, Florida Highway Patrol spokeswoman Kim Miller said.

Miller said severe winds caused the tractor-trailer traveling westbound on the Beeline to cross over into oncoming traffic near State Road 520 and land atop a car carrying a man, a woman and three children, two boys and one girl.

The girl, about 4 or 5, was taken to Florida Hospital East where she was pronounced dead, Miller said. No identification was available Friday night, but Miller said the car had a Florida license plate.

The five injured people, including one from the truck, were taken to various hospitals with minor injuries, Miller said.

The most widespread problem was power outages.

OUC reported that 120,000 customers -- more than half of its customers -- were without power in Orlando and St. Cloud.

"We've been hit hard," said Sheridan Becht, OUC spokesman.

OUC was dispatching more than 100 crews throughout its service area. Their first priority was to return service to hospitals, fire-rescue and emergency agencies, government buildings and wastewater plants before turning their attention to residential customers. Becht warned people, "Just stay away from downed wires. We don't want to see anybody getting hurt."

Progress Energy reported 335,000 customers without power in Central Florida.

Power was knocked out to almost 70,000 households -- or close to 140,000 people -- in Kissimmee and surrounding Osceola County, the Kissimmee Utility Authority said Friday night.

The mass outage -- involving more than 90 percent of the utility's customer base -- was the worst in recent memory for the Kissimmee area, the utility said.

That includes the 1998 tornadoes that decimated parts of Osceola County and wiped out power to half of KUA's households, spokesman Chris Gent said.

Winds reaching 105 mph were recorded at KUA's Kissimmee power plant, where the roof was ripped off at the storm's peak, he said.

Utility lineman Roy McClain of Pickens, S.C., cautioned that the real danger to the public will be today.

"There's going to be more people injured [today]," he said looking up at the storm overhead, "than there will be tonight."

He was referring to people who come across downed power lines or who try to fix something electrical themselves. Alabama tree cutter Steve Smith agreed.

"You just have to keep everybody focused," said Smith, 38, from Anniston, Ala. "If they don't watch themselves, they'll get into a terrible mess."'

Central Floridians had braced for Charley's approach with a mix of apprehension and apathy.

Val and Betty Tracy sought shelter at Seminole Spring Elementary School west of Eustis after they decided their Southern Palm RV Park wasn't the place to ride out the hurricane.

Val Tracy, a retired police officer from Maine, said it was his first hurricane and he felt safer in the shelter.

"We've been married 57 years," said Val Tracy, 76. "And we want to be here for a few more."

Shelters across Central Florida started filling up early in the day.

Around Central Florida, roads were empty by the late afternoon as many people began to hunker down.

At Thornton Park in Orlando at midday Friday, most restaurants were closing early and turning away customers as they braced for the storm.

As the wind and fierce downpour passed through Summerlin Avenue, a drenched Paige Riordan, 35, ducked into Hue restaurant with her Russell terrier, Truman. Riordan had planned a Hurricane Charley party Friday night and was shopping for drink mixes when the weather hit.

Riordan, a nurse, said she was racing to her home nearby when the storm struck. She quickly parked and brought her dog into the first open door she saw.

"I'm sopping wet," she said inside the restaurant, talking to a friend on her cell phone. "I wasn't fast enough to get home, I parked my car and ran into Hue's. But I have my nurse kit with me if anything happens."

Just before 11 p.m., as Charley completed its destructive swing across the peninsula, rain and high winds pummeled the Daytona area with power out in some parts of Port Orange.

"It's kind of wild right now. It's pouring, there's lightning and limbs are flying around," said Deborah Greenhill, a homemaker who lives in Port Orange on Rose Bay with her husband, Jack, in the Harbor Oaks area.

"We have no power. We can't see anything. Power has been out for about an hour."

"Listen, Sonny," she said to a reporter. "I have to go. I have water beating at my doors."

Richard Burnett, Elizabeth Cameron, Anthony Colarossi, Martin Comas, David Damron, Lisa Emmerich, Errin Haines, Nancy Imperiale, Beth Kassab, Pamela J. Johnson, Willoughby Mariano, Vicki McClure, Rebecca Panoff, Robert Sargent, Robyn Shelton, Mark Schlueb, Marshall Spence, Gary Taylor and Vanessa Vasquez of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Joe Newman can be reached at jnewman@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-6140.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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