PAINCOURTVILLE — Baton Rouge FedEx delivery driver Kyra Johnson was filling in last week for a co-worker who had broken his leg and was trying to help him finish his route in Assumption Parish before the bad weather arrived.
Johnson, 35, made her delivery at Sagona’s Hardware in Assumption Parish, knowing about the talk of coming bad weather the afternoon of Feb. 23, and was hustling to leave when she saw the funnel cloud in her rearview mirror.
“I said, ‘God, that’s a tornado,’ ” Johnson said.
Her tale is one of many stories of last-second escapes and miraculous survival of the people who weathered the tornadoes, including some who attribute their salvation to a blessing from a higher power.
The EF-3 tornado, which was bearing down on Sagona Hardware along La. 1 in Paincourtville, was in the process of ripping a 21-mile path 300 to 350 yards wide through Assumption and St. James parishes with winds reaching 140 mph in Convent, eventually killing two in a RV park and injuring countless others.
It was one of the record-setting 12 tornadoes that ripped through south Louisiana on Feb. 23 and the strongest, damaging and destroying homes and businesses in its path.
With the twister to Johnson’s back and Johnson starting to head north of La. 1 out of the store, she had a decision to make: Could she outrun the tornado in her delivery truck or should she seek shelter?
Johnson decided to seek shelter inside the store, so she turned back off La. 1 into the front of the building.
The door was locked and blocked with sandbags and the staff was already huddled in a bathroom.
Johnson, afraid to get back in her truck, hid behind a Coca-Cola machine outside the store.
“I just was saying, ‘God, please save me,’ ” Johnson said.
As the winds grew stronger and debris started flying, the soda machine fell over and Johnson was completely exposed to the storm but she felt protected.
“I did feel like I was in a shield. I was in a bubble, that God helped me see everything around me. I didn’t move,” Johnson said. “I didn’t float up in the air. You know, none of these weird things happened to me. I was just … religious, I felt. Everything was religious around me. I felt we were all covered.”
Barbara Posey, 47, a resident of the devastated Sugar Hill RV Park near Convent, counts herself among those with that view. She was released from the hospital Monday.
Posey was sucked out of her travel trailer, was aloft in the twister and saw debris pass in front of her until she grabbed hold of an electrical panel and wire that kept her from flying away.
Posey attributes her salvation to her dead ex-husband — an angel, she believes — who she said she saw and pushed her to the ground.
“The next thing I knew is I landed on the ground, in the water, face first,” Posey said.
Posey said it’s “a shocker” she even survived.
Her husband, Ricky Posey, 50, who was at work when the tornado struck, said his wife, who was slashed on her back with glass, has months of recovery ahead of her but admires that she was able to survive.
“A tough woman,” Ricky Posey said.
At the same time, some moments of survival came down to keeping a cool head at the right time.
Bailey Bell, 16, a junior at Lutcher High School who had been let out early Feb. 23 due to the bad weather, got her 75-year-old “paw-paw,” who suffers from Alzheimer’s, and her brother, Bry, 12, to leave their trailer moments before the tornado thrashed it.
Bell, who lives on Schexnaydre Street in Convent, had seen the funnel cloud from the kitchen window and remembered her mother’s warning to hide in the family’s metal shed whenever there’s trouble.
“I told everybody, ‘Go. Go. Get out. Go to the shed. It’s a tornado. Run,’” Bell said as she was cleaning up Monday with her mom, Ronny Nesmith.
Once in the shed’s bathroom, Bailey and Bry could feel the pressure from the tornado and were being splashed by water being sucked up from the toilet but were unharmed.
Their trailer was torn from its foundations, flipped over and broken open across the road.
Some people, including St. James Sheriff Willy Martin Jr., are calling Bailey a hero, but she isn’t claiming that title.
“I feel like I was just following directions,” Bailey said.
In Paincourtville, surveillance and cellphone video show the moments before the tornado struck at the hardware store and as it arrived.
David Sagona, owner of the store, had hustled his 10 employees and one customer into the bathroom, could hear the storm battering the store and later opened the bathroom door.
“I walked out and saw the whole front of the store collapsed in,” he said.
Had Johnson made it into the store, she could have been harmed by the caved-in roof of building which collapsed near the front doors Johnson had been trying to enter.
The 12,000-square-foot building, which Sagona said is insured, has since been deemed a total loss.
Neither Johnson, Sagona nor any of his employees or the customer were injured in the tornado.
But Johnson notes the store surveillance video that Sagona posted on Facebook this week shows her how violent the tornado really was. (Mobile/tablet users: Click here to see the video.)
In her mind’s eye, the tornado had been much calmer.
“In my vision, everything was moving slow. I had time to repent. I had time to ask to God to save me. I had time to see my family. I had time to see everything around me as it was unfolding,” she said.
Johnson believes her survival was part of a divine plan that includes her sharing this story of deliverance that, to her, defies practical explanation.
“If it (the tornado) could take that soda machine, why didn’t it take me? I didn’t want to be taken, but why? You know what I mean? How did I not fly off into that bayou?” she said.
It’s a sign, Johnson said, that something else was at work for her and the workers at the hardware store.
“That’s how I know we were protected by the blood of Jesus,” she added.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.