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Florida family survives EF-2 tornado by hunkering down inside closet

Posted at 9:30 AM, Oct 22, 2019

KATHLEEN, Fla. -- By the time one family in Kathleen realized they were in a tornado warning, they were literally in the tornado.

As windows exploded around Geronimo Reyes-Estrada, glass flew past his head like bullets and embedded in the drywall behind him.

"I fell to the ground, the ceiling collapsed, and this fan came down the blades still turning," Reyes-Estrada said.

Reyes-Estrada scrambled on the floor of his master bedroom, trying to reach his family in the closet. The roof of the living room — where his family had been watching weather reports — was already gone.

"I grabbed the closet door to close it, and then the roof in here tore off," Reyes-Estrada said.

Hugging his wife, son and daughter, Reyes-Estrada hoped and prayed the walls of the closet would hold.

There was little time to take cover. The tornado cut a path nines miles long through Polk County through the heart of Kathleen. A few houses down the street from Reyes-Estrada, another family was hunkering down.

"I thought, 'my gosh what's happening?'" 92-year-old Betty Woodham said.

Woodham said her daughter woke her up and rushed her into the hallway.

"I jumped up as quick as I could. I can't move very fast. I've never heard a sound like that," Woodham said. "It's awful. It's awful you feel so sorry for the people."

According to preliminary damage survey results from the National Weather Service, the tornado touched down at 10:59 p.m. local time and stayed on the ground until 11:29 p.m.

Packing winds of 120 mph, it destroyed everything in its path. The maximum width of the tornado was 525 yards — more than a third of a mile wide.

"We are going to keep moving forward. We are hard-working people, and we are going to move forward and continue to work and fight for success," Reyes- Estrada said.

The family is now asking friends and family for help to get back on their feet.

"I thank God that I have my family with me. That is first. I have my daughter, my wife, and my sons, all alive. That is the most important," Reyes-Estrada said.

This story was originally published by Michael Paluska on WFTS in Tampa, Florida.