Paramedic Josie Barrett, who was one of the first responders in the heavily damaged Lake Mack area, described the intense situation she encountered as "dark, rainy and bloody." She was operating a QRV soon after the tornado struck, and as she dodged debris, an elderly couple emerged from the wreckage of trees looking for help. Barrett characterized them, and many of the victims she encountered in the early hours after the storm, as "zombies" walking around in a daze. Other crew members had similar experiences and worked through the challenges of providing aid while maneuvering around leaking propane tanks, frightened pets, fallen limbs and other physical obstacles. Crews often found themselves assisting residents who would walk up to them on the site of a call requesting help for their families, neighbors and friends.
Crew members also assisted with the difficult task of rescue and recovery and were, in some cases, called upon to remove the bodies of the deceased and comfort the loved ones of those who perished. In Lake County, Lake County Fire Rescue had the primary role of search and recovery, assisted by several municipal fire departments and resources from Orange and Seminole counties. In Sumter County, the task was performed by The Villages Fire Rescue Department, with assistance from Marion County Fire-Rescue. There were many stories of individual acts of heroism during the first hours of the response that are testaments to the quality of emergency personnel serving these Central Florida communities.
EMS, fire and law enforcement faced the challenge of establishing and managing multiple simultaneous commands in infrastructure-damaged environments. Lake-Sumter EMS lost a critical communications tower in the Lake Mack area. Electricity and phone lines were also down, and cell phones were overloaded to the point of failure. As the morning progressed, unified commands were established with fire and law enforcement at The Villages, Lady Lake and Lake Mack. The Lake-Sumter EMS Operations Center was established, and Lake-Sumter EMS representatives staffed health and medical positions at both the Lake and Sumter emergency operations centers.
Lake-Sumter EMS, in conjunction with the local and state emergency management planning process, utilizes an all-hazards approach to disaster planning. Disaster plans include many potential multi-casualty, high-patient-volume incidents such as hurricanes, train derailments with hazardous materials, wildfires, transportation incidents and, of course, tornadoes.
Disaster planning and both tabletop and full-scale MCI exercises are conducted annually at the local and regional levels through local emergency planning councils. The Lake-Sumter EMS multi-casualty incident plan is an annex to both counties' comprehensive emergency management plan. In addition, Lake-Sumter EMS was a partner in the development of both the state and regional catastrophic health incident response plans.
Local response would not have been as effective had it not been for a range of mutual aid provided by neighboring counties. Ambulances from Marion County's Emergency Medical Services Alliance (EMSA) responded to calls in The Villages and Lady Lake from a large staging area in The Villages; Orange County Fire Rescue staffed stations in southern Lake County; and an urban search and rescue team from Marion County searched demolished homes and facilities in The Villages. Mutual aid resources were utilized both to respond to impacted areas and to support normal operations. The Lake-Sumter EMS Communications Center received many calls from dispatch centers around the state offering assistance. The unified command system was utilized and worked extremely well.
The recovery process began almost immediately after the tornadoes passed. Florida Governor Charlie Crist quickly issued proclamations declaring the affected counties disaster areas. President George W. Bush followed with a disaster declaration speeding federal assistance.
In cooperation with the Lake and Sumter county emergency management agencies, FEMA established multiple disaster recovery centers (DRCs) close to the impacted communities. The DRCs provided much-needed information on local, state and federal assistance available to victims. The American Red Cross opened mass-care shelters and deployed mobile emergency response vehicles. The Salvation Army and other faith-based groups established feeding stations.
The counties were blessed with an outpouring of volunteers from both local communities and across the country. Nearly 700 volunteers descended on the region; many were from AmeriCorps, the American Red Cross and faith-based groups. These volunteers provided food, comfort, cleanup and other humanitarian assistance to those impacted by the tornadoes.