NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Terror struck New Orleans Feb. 13 as an early morning tornado touched down in neighborhoods still recovering from Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught in August 2005.
The tornado, which apparently skipped across both sides of the Mississippi River, stuck dangerously close to Westwego and Gentilly Baptist churches and just a few blocks from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
The powerful line of storms, in addition to spawning a tornado, toppled trees, downed power lines and killed at least one woman.
The storms were particularly frightening for thousands of area residents still living in small, vulnerable FEMA trailers 18 months after Hurricane Katrina.
Southern Baptists were on the scene immediately, as volunteers and residents trained in disaster relief went into action.
Jay Adkins, pastor of Westwego Baptist, said he and the church’s youth pastor, Brian Scholl, “grabbed our disaster relief credentials and went to work.”
Just two blocks from a street that sustained heavy damage, Jackie James, project manager for the Arkansas Baptist Builders, and his wife Linda who are residing in a trailer on Gentilly Baptist’s property, woke at about 3:15 a.m. as wind, hail and rain rocked the trailer.
“Today, I was supposed to do an electrical plan on a home right over there,” James said in reference to the storms’ clout. “That is no longer necessary.”
A group of 96 volunteers, including groups from Arkansas, South Carolina, Kansas, Nebraska and Canada, returned home from New Orleans this week. Sixteen volunteers presently are staying at Gentilly Baptist and a group of 70 is scheduled to arrive next week.
Several homes slated to be rebuilt by Arkansas Baptist Builders were damaged by the tornado. Assessment of the damage was continuing throughout the day.
Four firefighters were taken to the hospital after the tornado struck Fire House Twelve on Franklin Avenue, ripping apart the trailer where they were staying.
Tanisha Goodman, owner of a duplex a block over from the firehouse, said one side of the duplex recently had been repaired, allowing a tenant to return home from Houston. After receiving word that the duplex had been hit, she arrived on the scene at 9 a.m. to find that James and the Arkansas Builders already were there.
“I had to pull over twice to get myself together as I drove over,” Goodman said. “I was glad the church [Gentilly] was already here — I appreciate them so much.”
In Westwego, soon after Adkins was awakened by the storms, he looked out the window and saw what seemed to be flashes of lightning but quickly realized that the flashes were transformers blowing and objects catching on fire.
“The tornado was just one street over from the house!” Adkins’ wife Michelle said. “The moment we heard the noise we grabbed our pillows and ran to the shower.”
Moments after the storm passed, she recounted, her husband and the youth pastor ran to a nearby economy hotel to assist the guests. The tornado made a direct hit on the hotel and all the guests, many of whom had been there for an extended period of time, had to be moved to a shelter at a nearby school.
Westwego Police Chief “Poncho” Munch directed Adkins and Scholl immediately to a group of 50 of the hotel residents -– several with babies.
When Westwego’s mayor spotted Adkins, he said, “Reverend, is this déjà vu?”
“An incredible blessing that has come from Katrina is the relationships that have been established with emergency personnel and city officials,” Adkins said. Adkins and Scholl secured water, diapers and other supplies from a nearby grocery store and delivered them to emergency personnel and to residents who had been in the hotel.
In the Gentilly section of town, James was pulling all crews in to the area to repair roofs and do immediate damage control.
A 78-year-old Gentilly resident who is recovering from a stroke was living alone in a FEMA trailer by his gutted home when the tornado lifted the trailer off the blocks. When he realized there was no escape, he hid next to his bed.
James said the man will be staying at Gentilly Baptist until the FEMA trailer can be replaced.
Elsewhere in Louisiana, a tornado left a five-mile swathe of destruction through the rural community of Breaux Bridge about 11 miles east of Lafayette just below Interstate 10.
Teche Baptist Church, working with the St. Martin Parish sheriff’s office, is caring for at least 12 people whose homes were damaged or destroyed. At least 43 homes were either destroyed or sustained some sort of damage, said Guy Cormier, St. Martin Parish president and a deacon at Highland Baptist Church in New Iberia.
“It is unbelievable how God must have been shining down on St. Martin Parish,” Cormier said, referencing the three minor injuries reported after the tornado thus far.
“We have some homes that are just no longer there,” he said. “The people just ended up sitting in their yards in the middle of the night. One man’s mobile home was flipped over. All that is left now is a frame. He found himself with a bloody nose sitting on his lawn.”
Aware that the parish would need more than just local help in recovery efforts, Cormier, as the man responsible for disaster relief in St. Martin Parish, signed a declaration of emergency at 5 a.m., prompting Gov. Kathleen Blanco to fly over the area and then go on a ground tour.
“She was blown away by the devastation she saw,” Cormier said. “She assured us that the state is going to do everything they can to help us through this situation.
“We’ve set up a relief shelter at Teche Baptist, urging people with damage or who need assistance to come there,” Cormier said.
Teche Baptist in Breaux Bridge, only a few miles from where the tornado struck, opened their doors at 2 a.m. at the request of Sheriff Ronnie Theriot to give tornado victims shelter and food, pastor Wayne Lyons reported.
“As soon as we opened at 2, people started coming in,” Lyons said. Among those needing shelter were several elderly people. One man is bedridden.
Many from the community have stepped forward to offer assistance, Lyons said.
“Many different churches have called,” he said. “The Holiday Inn sent blankets and personal hygiene items. One lady who attends Teche Baptist stopped on her way to work and dropped off a couple of bags of groceries. People in the community are willing to help, and we appreciate that.
“There aren’t that many trees down, but there’s a lot of damage to homes,” Lyons continued. “One man lost his house. He had no other place to go. He has no family. I told him, ‘We’re not going to throw you out on the street. We’ll take care of you.’”
Teche Baptist is no stranger to helping storm victims. Working alongside the St. Martin sheriff’s department, the church opened its doors in 2005 to people from New Orleans and Port Sulphur after Hurricane Katrina struck the southeastern part of the state, and again after Hurricane Rita ripped up the Southwestern part of the state.
Fielding visits from the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, a Louisiana Baptist Convention chaplain and the governor, who sat and talked with one evacuee who lost her trailer and thanked Lyons for opening the church’s doors to help those in need, Lyons said Teche Baptist believes God will see the community through the difficult times ahead.
“We don’t understand why the Lord allows certain things to happen,” the pastor said, “but we know the Lord will see them through it. Maybe He’s trying to get our attention. We’re going to help these people every way we can.”
Cormier agreed, saying, “Working together, we can accomplish a lot of things. We’re seeing that today, the first day after the storm, trying to get these people’s lives back together.
“We’ve gotten numerous calls from volunteer groups across the state,” he continued. “We do need help.” Many residents whose homes were destroyed had just dropped their homeowners’ insurance because those living below Interstate 10 saw their premiums double after the 2005 hurricane season.
Tornado damage also was reported in the communities of Youngsville, Loreauville and Port of Iberia in the Lafayette area.
Marilyn Stewart is a writer with the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s communications office; Tammy Sharp is a writer with the Louisiana Baptist Message newsjournal. Gary D. Myers of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary also contributed to this article.