Update, 10 a.m. Wednesday: At least 200 homes and other buildings were damaged in St. John the Baptist Parish following the touchdown of two tornadoes there Tuesday, Parish President Natalie Robottom and the National Weather Service said Wednesday morning.
About 9,200 are without power as a result of the damage, and many homes have been rendered unlivable in areas that were devastated by Hurricane Isaac in 2012, Robottom said at a news conference.
Nonetheless, Robottom said crews began cleaning up wreckage early Wednesday after working late into the night Tuesday. Officials were hoping power in the parish would be fully restored by 5 p.m. Thursday, and they were already counting on assistance from the Red Cross, volunteers around the country, and neighboring government bodies.
"We're going to get through this as we've done before," Robottom said.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Mike Tregre warned both residents and outsiders against trying to loot those victimized by Tuesday's severe weather. He promised his deputies would be out in full force in cruisers both marked and unmarked until the Sheriff's Office sees "everything is safe and secure."
Further, "for those who would come out here to steal and loot, it may not be the Sheriff's Office you have to fear," Tregre said. "Residents will protect their property. It may be you who needs 911's services. ... I'm just putting that out there."
LaPlace was the hardest-hit of St. John's communities after a tornado struck there about 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, tearing off homes' roofs and tossing vehicles around. The Cambridge, Riverlands subdivision (Ellerslie, Greenwood, Madewood and West Frisco), Palmetto, Indigo Parkway and Belle Terre areas were all badly damaged.
Nonetheless, Robottom said only minor injuries were reported from Tuesday's weather.
"If we have a saving grace, it's that," Robottom said.
Major power outages are affecting neighborhoods along Airline Highway, which for now is closed from LaPlace to Reserve, Robottom said. She asked motorists to take Belle Terre Boulevard to Interstate 10 and then use the Gramercy exit to commute around the area.
She added that mere "sightseers" were not welcome in parish's most damaged zones.
"With the debris staged on the side of the road, there's not a lot of space," Robottom said.
--Staff writer Ramon Antonio Vargas, email@example.com
Update, 9 a.m. Wednesday: All St. John the Baptist Parish schools will be closed Wednesday. After-school activities are also canceled.
Officials said damage in LaPlace, where St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom declared a state of emergency on Tuesday night, was widespread. Near Cambridge Avenue – where streetlights were out and roofs lay scattered on the ground – officials announced a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.
Robottom told WWL-TV that about 10 people were injured, although not severely. The National Weather Service said a tornado touched down in LaPlace; 23-year-old Nykia Chambers did not require any meteorologist’s confirmation. Chambers said she was inside her family’s house on Lexington Drive with her 12-year-old sister when the storm hit. When she saw the wind kicking up she rushed her sister to the house’s bathroom.
Chambers was on the phone with her mother, she said. “All she hears is us just screaming,” Chambers recalled.
From a full block away Chambers’ cousin saw her Dodge Neon being lifted into the air. Realizing his relative was in danger, the cousin drove a U-Haul vehicle to Chambers’ house and kicked the door down to rescue both sisters.
“We ran out, and I didn’t even look back,” Chambers said.
Hours later Chambers and her family returned to the house to retrieve what clothes and other possessions they could, loading them into the back of an SUV in plastic bags. All up and down Cambridge Avenue and its nearby streets, residents were making similar calculations about what they could save.
Thousands of people were without power in the parish, with the only light on some streets provided by passing deputies’ blue lights. Officials said the Emily C. Watkins Elementary School at 938 Highway 628 had been opened as a temporary shelter for residents whose homes had experienced damage.
Rhonda Lemons, a mass care and shelter officer with the St. John the Baptist Parish Emergency Operations Center, said eight people from three families had arrived at the shelter by around 10 p.m. on Tuesday night.
Also present were eight firefighters, captains and chiefs from the New Orleans Fire Department. Chief Robert Eiserloh said that when St. John put out the call for help in running the shelter, “we said, ‘we can take care of that.’” Those firefighters set up cots and paramedics remained on standby for more arrivals, but most affected St. John residents seemed to be sheltering with friends or family -- or remaining in their damaged homes.
In addition to Cambridge, the parish announced a curfew for the Riverlands Subdivision including Ellerslie, Greenwood, Madewood and West Frisco, Palmetto, Indigo Parkway and Belle Terre.
Road closures included U.S. 61 between LaPlace Park and Belle Terre Boulevard, U.S. 61 at Tiffany Drive, and Cambridge between Faireway and Woodland Drive.
Daryl Tolliver, a 42-year-old computer programmer, peered out into the darkness from his cul-de-sac in Heritage Cove and recounted just how quickly some of his neighbors' houses turned into wreckage.
“This was wild, and it was fast. All this happened within five minutes,” Tolliver said.
Tolliver was sitting in his house’s living room looking out a picture window when he suddenly noticed chairs flying through the subdivision. Just moments after he warned his family to get away from the glass, he said, the window was destroyed.
Tolliver said he was embarrassed to be talking about the window when so many of his neighbors had lost roofs or cars. After so many storms to strike St. John in recent years, he said, residents have a “here we go again” attitude toward this latest.
“We all have a lot of experience dealing with adjustors,” he said.
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