Severe thunderstorms and tornadoes sliced through central Florida overnight, killing at least 19 people, damaging thousands of homes and businesses and prompting Gov. Charlie Crist to seek federal disaster assistance from President Bush.

"Our priority today is search and rescue," Crist (R) told reporters in Tallahassee, the state capital, as he declared a state of emergency in four counties.

Later, recalling an afternoon phone conversation he had with Bush, Crist said: "I impressed upon him the importance of us getting federal aid" from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Crist said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who oversees FEMA, assured him "we would get help as quickly as possible to make sure that central Florida is covered."

The tornadoes crossed the region between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. when many people were asleep and unaware of warnings that had been broadcast on radio and television.

The 19 deaths all occurred in Lake County, about 50 miles northwest of Orlando.

With clothes, furniture and personal belongings strewn over communities north and east of Orlando, the aftermath was reminiscent of the storms that struck central Florida in February 1998, killing 42 people and damaging or destroying about 2,600 homes and businesses.

Crist today declared a state of emergency for Lake, Sumter, Seminole and Volusia counties and toured some of the devastated communities by helicopter with other state officials and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

"It looked like a bomb went off on some of these homes, and it breaks your heart to see that," Crist told reporters after the helicopter landed in a community called Lake Mack. Thirteen people died in the Lake County communities of Lake Mack and Paisley. The other six fatalities were reported in Lady Lake.

Standing beside Crist at a mid-afternoon news conference in nearby Volusia County, Nelson spoke of the damage he saw during the helicopter tour.

"It looks like a total war zone about 300 yards wide, about three football fields," he said. "And the last thing we saw before we lifted off on the helicopter was a little fawn whose rear right leg was just completely dangling, limping off on three legs back into the woods."

At a retirement community called The Villages near Lady Lake, Lee Shaver, 54, said that "every muscle and bone" in his body shook as he huddled with his wife in a closet while the storm tore the roof off his house.

"We don't know what to do. We have no cell phones, wallets, IDs," Shaver told the Associated Press.

In Lady Lake, the steel-reinforced Church of God was demolished, even though it was built to withstand 150-mph winds, the Rev. Larry Lynn told AP.

At daybreak, parishioners gathered amid the ruins, hugging and consoling each other, the wire service reported.

This afternoon, Florida law-enforcement officials urged residents to report instances of price gouging.

"These deadly storms have caused great devastation. Our goal is to ensure our citizens are not victimized a second time by price gougers," Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum said in a statement released by his office. "We will do whatever is necessary to help protect Floridians from those who might try to take advantage of them in the wake of this disaster."

As evening approached, McCollum told reporters that homeowners should be on the lookout for looters.

"I would warn anyone who is in the devastation path of the storm and has property damage that there could be people out there who want to rip you off," he said.

The dead include Carla and Donald Downing of Lake Mack as well as their 15-year-old son, David, according to the AP.

Wire services also reported at least five crashes took place near the New Smyrna Beach exit of Interstate 4. The highway was closed for about three hours.

Thousands of Central Florida residents have lost power in their homes, state officials said.