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After terror, "reality is just setting in'

The roof is gone, the windows are gone, the entire back wall is gone and the owners are now gone, too. But the sense of humor is still at home.

Out in front of the gray condominium at 5005 92nd Place N, devastated by Saturday's tornado, is a sign put in the yard Sunday: "For Sale By Owner."

"It was $80,000. Yesterday I think they were asking $40,000. Today, we'll pay you $20 to take it," a neighbor shouted to a passer-by who stopped in front of the condominium.

Gallows humor, dark jokes that always seem to spring from the worst tragedies, had clearly found a home on the battered block of once-well-kept two-story Lake Forest Condominiums.

A few doors down, owners of another abandoned and condemned condominium had left their own message to the outside world. "The Party's Here." Above it was a picture postcard of a tranquil Florida sunset.

Experts in human behavior say such reactions to a crisis are not unusual.

"There's usually a period immediately after the trauma that the person is in what used to be called in a state of shock," said Dr. Alan Keck, an Orlando psychologist who treats stress and trauma disorders.

Keck also coordinates mental health services through the American Red Cross and was active in assisting victims of Hurricane Andrew.

He said relying on humor is one way to cope with a sudden, overwhelming tragedy.

"I think it's a kind of defense mechanism. It's a distraction from the painful thoughts and feelings about the loss both for the victims and the people they meet," he said.

Joe Sheppard was driving down his block, just half a block away from his condominium, when he saw an enormous black cloud bear down on his home. Before he could comprehend what he was watching, the tornado ripped into his row of units, tearing off roofs and crushing cars.

"It looked like a bomb hit my house," he said.

Sheppard said he ran from his truck, thinking only about saving his cat, Smokey. His home was destroyed but his cat was safe.

He said in the days that have followed his emotions have been on a roller-coaster ride. "First there was fear, fear for my cat. There was humor after that to try to keep my composure so I wouldn't fall apart and cry," he said, "Reality is just setting in now. I'm 52 years old and I've scratched my whole life and I just want my house and my life back."

His neighbor, Anne Yeager, said she, too, is only starting to comprehend the destruction that a few seconds did to her home.

When the storm hit, she, her granddaughter and husband huddled on a stairway landing and watched in helpless horror as the ceiling just a few feet above them was wrenched from its supports and then slammed down.

In a bedroom where her granddaughter just 15 minutes before had been sleeping late, the roof smashed into the bed and crushed it.

But despite what she saw around her, Yeager said she could only feel relief at first.

On Sunday and Monday, she said, she still felt uncharacteristically calm, sorting through clothes and furniture, salvaging what she could.

By Tuesday morning, however, tears came to her eyes and her hands shook whenever she talked about the tornado. "You just all of a sudden start to cry for no reason," she said.

Feelings of hopelessness also seem to have started to set in. "I loved our home. We had a lovely home," she said as she picked listlessly through a few piles of clothes on her driveway. "But I could just walk away from this whole thing now. None of this means nothing. It's a weird feeling. I would just as soon throw everything away."

On the average it takes about 24 to 48 hours for the initial shock to wear off, said Keck. After that, the enormity of what has happened seeps through.

In all there are 295 units in 51 buildings in the Lake Forest community. Most are about 6 years old and sell for between $70,000 and $80,000.

The storm plowed into the block of units across the Helen Howarth Park on its deadly run to Park Royale Mobile Home Village and the Autumn Run housing division.

About 45 units were damaged by the storm, with about 20 of them condemned and scheduled for demolition, residents said.

Just after noon Tuesday, the block was mostly deserted, save a few residents still loading salvaged possessions into rental trucks.

A bulldozer shoveled debris just a few feet from what once was Raymond Thorpe's back wall. There is no wall anymore, only open space and crumbled plaster and wads of dirty, pink insulation.

Thorpe said he found himself focusing on silly things after the roof was ripped from his home. He said he kept trying to straighten his kitchen, even though the floor was ankle-deep with broken glass and debris.

As helicopters buzzed overhead and a small platoon of sightseers converged on his block, Thorpe said he felt embarrassed by the exposure no walls or roof gave him.

"You feel guilty because your place looks like hell," he said with a laugh, "It was like, "let me straighten up and I'll have company over in an hour.' "

But, now three days later, Thorpe is starting to think about such things as returning to his job as a Xerox technician. Maybe Friday, he said.

"You've got to start clicking back to real life."