30 die as tornadoes tear into Florida

AT LEAST 30 PEOPLE were killed when an unprecedented string of tornadoes, driven by the El Nino weather phenomenon, churned through the Orlando area of Florida before dawn yesterday, near Walt Disney World and other tourist attractions.

One television channel put the death-toll at more than 40. More than 250 people were hurt and several were missing in the worst disaster to hit Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the worst tornado catastrophe.

Most casualties were in mobile-home sites, where at least a dozen twisters - weathermen lost count in the chaos - picked up homes and cars like a child tossing around toys. Rescuers, guided by helicopters with devices to seek the heat of bodies, freed several people trapped in buildings or debris.

Several tornadoes passed near Disney World, Sea World and the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park but none touched down and there were no immediate reports of casualties at the sites.

By yesterday evening it was not clear whether any foreign tourists were among the dead, injured or missing. One victim found after several hours was an 18-month-old baby, ripped from its father's arms when a tornado hit their home for only a few seconds. In some areas it was as though a giant bulldozer had rumbled along a 200-yard wide path, flattening everything in its way.

Winds of up to 250mph were enough to pick up articulated lorries, flip them over and scatter them along the main I-95 highway, which runs from the southern tip of Florida up the US east coast.

"I looked up and saw the stars. The whole roof was gone," said Eugene Walton, whose family house was destroyed. "If you saw the house, you'd wonder how we got out of their with our lives."

Joe Saz, who lives in a block of flats at Witer Garden, west of Orlando, said: "You could feel the whole apartment just shift. It just jumped to the right. Suddenly water started coming out of the walls, out of the light fixtures and there were screams coming from every direction."

Worst hit was Osceola Count, where a 27-shop mall was mangled into a pile of twisted metal and jumbled concrete. "Had it hit during shopping hours," it would have been a catastrophe," said a resident.

President Bill Clinton, taking time off from his consultations on the Iraq crisis, sent the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, James Lee Witt, to the area. The Florida Governor, Lawton Chiles, also toured the stricken zones.