PALM COAST, Fla. - A man who lives in one of the seven of homes destroyed Saturday night when a tornado ripped through a Palm Coast neighborhood says he survived by the grace of God.
"When it went boom and blew up. I was dead," John Coverly said Monday.
Coverly says he was lifted off his feet by the winds, thrown on the ground, and just narrowly missed getting hit by his own roof.
"The thing hit me in the back, but the Lord covered me with 12-inch insulation first," Coverly said. "The two-by-fours and the rafters hit me in the back."
With more than 160 homes damaged when the EF01 tornado, city officials are declaring a state of emergency. The Palm Coast fire chief says the mayor is expected to sign the declaration by the end of the day.
"The fence has been knocked down, the back doors destroyed, parts of the roof ripped off, and the windows smashed out. And this is damage that you'll see all over the place here in the Indian trails community," firefighter Jason Wagner said. "We quickly realized that it was a widespread type of deal."
The National Weather Service said the tornado had winds as high as 105 mph and up to 150-yards wide where it did the most damage in the B section of Palm Coast.
NHS meteorologists say the twister touched down five times, first east of U.S. 1 and just north of Palm Coast Parkway about 6:55 p.m. The tornado then skipped over Interstate 95 and damaged dozens of homes in the Indian Trails subdivision as it continued to move to the northeast for nine miles until the cell weakened and moved out to sea.
Parade turns to panic
The tornado came through as up to 10,000 people were out watching the community's annual Starlight Christmas Parade.
Marie Rojo had 70 dangers under the age of 8 on a float when word came across the public address system that the parade was cancelled due to an approaching storm.
"They heard the word(s) 'bad weather, tornado.' They were crying and screaming. They wanted mommy, they wanted daddy, and we were there to offer support," Rojo said.
Rojo and other parents brought dozens of children to her studio for shelter. Firefighters say countless residents were doing the same.
"We had emergency crews on standby and ready to come in from Flagler County, Bunnell, and the city of Flagler Beach as well," said Palm Coast Fire Chief Mike Beadle. After the storm passed, "We just took our time going house to house and answering calls as they were coming in."
Bill Sposa said the twister went right over his home while he and his wife were inside.
"My screen, my doors are gone," he said. "The powerline is going to things now, some of the gutters are all pushed in."
Sposa is now in cleanup mode, and he's got a lot to do before his home is back up to par.
Assessing the damage
Palm Coast city officials said 22 homes had moderate damage and 142 others were partially damaged. The tornado knocked down power lines, power poles and trees; and many roads were impassable. At one point, nearly 3,000 homes were without power.
The damage was estimated at more than $5 million.
No injuries were reported.
"People say it never happens here," Chief Beadle said. "It did happen here. We've got to get ready for the future and just make people aware of what is going on."
A group of University of Florida researchers was surveying the damage Monday.
"For Florida, we usually don't see very strong tornadoes, so this is a little bit more damage than what we have seen on the previous ones we've been to," researcher David Roueche said. "But it is certainly not anything we haven't seen before."
City officials released several 911 calls from concerned residents. One woman said she was driving when the tornado knocked out her windshield and a side window. The frightened woman was unaware that a tornado had passed through and told the operator in a shaking voice that she had driven away from the storm to safety and was covered in glass. Another caller said the storm had knocked down two large oak trees in front of her house.
Joe LaPlante was sitting on his screened in porch with a friend listening to what they thought was a regular storm passing through. Suddenly, it sounded like a train rattling by and the two men jumped inside just before trees came crashing through the porch where they had been sitting.
Jim Barilka was home at the time and says he saw the tornado coming straight toward him.
"I know this sounds crazy, but I stood in front of the house and I said, 'Oh no, you don't. In Jesus' name, you will not touch these houses. You will not touch my house, you will not touch my neighbors' houses. You will do no damage; you will take no human life,'" Barilka said.
Tom Musto is still in shock from what he saw when he pulled into his neighborhood Saturday night.
"We were actually about three blocks down the road and it all started with a big bang, and we started hearing sirens and we're like, 'OK, it's pretty bad somewhere,' and then we came up Belle Terre and saw cops everywhere and we turned the corner and saw my big tree on the house. Yeah, it was pretty emotional," Musto said.
Musto went to the store at 6 a.m. Sunday to buy a chainsaw. He's not just cleaning up his yard, but surrounding yards as well.
"Everybody has been coming by -- 'do you need food help pulling the limbs?' -- So it's kind of cool that something like this bad happened is bringing everyone together," Musto said.
The American Red Cross is providing food and shelter assistance.
Residents should call the sheriff's office non-emergency dispatch number at 386-313-4911 to report storm-related issues.
The Flagler County Building Department is urging homeowners to verify a contractor's license before hiring someone for repairs. Check an online database of contractors or call 386-986-3780 to check for active licenses.
"People are coming up and saying we'll remove your trees for $400 cash, and a lot of these people are pretty shady," Daughtery said. "A lot of times they don't have a license and are probably a pretty shady business."
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