Church members and missionaries in central Florida are reported safe after deadly tornados ripped through their communities Feb. 22-23.
During the storms, winds up to 260 mph turned entire neighborhoods into heaps of wood, twisted metal and broken glass. Power was cut to 41,000 homes, more than 40 people died, and hundreds more were still missing Feb. 24. The storm was the deadliest round of tornadoes in Florida since the National Weather Service started keeping detailed records a half-century ago.Four LDS families lost homes and several more suffered property damaged. A barn at the Church-owned ranch in central Florida was also damaged.
Ron and Peggy Ayers of the Metrowest Ward, Orlando Florida South Stake, had lived in their new apartment only one week when the tornados struck. During the storm the Ayers' three children ran to the bathroom - where Brother and Sister Ayers tried to meet them.
First, a glass door blew in on the couple and then the outside walls collapsed, pinning them down near their children. When the tornado passed only one wall in their apartment remained standing. Sister Ayers broke her foot, but the rest of the family suffered only cuts and bruises.
Within 45 minutes the Relief Society president was there to take Sister Ayers to the hospital - where her bishop met them. A member of the ward watched the children until they, too, could go to the hospital. "We knew who to call, and we knew who would be there for us," said Sister Ayers.
All the Ayers' possessions - including their car - were destroyed during the disaster, but from a member's house two days later, Sister Ayers explained that the family was in good spirits. "The Lord blessed us with our lives," she said.
She is also grateful for the wonderful support system the Church offers. Since the disaster, the phone at the house where the Ayers are staying has rung almost constantly. Dozens of members have offered food, clothing and needed support to the family.
W. Blake Sonne, president of Orlando Florida South Stake, said it is wonderful to see Church members helping other Latter-day Saints and community members who need it.
More than 100 members of his stake worked to help disaster victims during the first few days after the storm. The stake organized teams which helped Church and community members repair broken windows and roofs. For members whose houses were damaged beyond repair, they helped with insurance issues, he said. Spanish-speaking members manned Red Cross telephones - receiving calls from people who could not speak English.
Pres. Sonne also received calls from other stake presidents across Florida offering volunteers. One of the meetinghouses in the Orlando Florida South Stake is being used as a collection site for goods to help with relief efforts. Food, blankets, clothing and supplies are gathered there, sorted and then donated to the relief agencies.
"When you talk to the Red Cross and Salvation Army, they know about the Church's ability to organize and get people to help," he said. With the help of these relief agencies, "we are doing all we can."