They were cursed, or lucky, or maybe both.
Residents in parts of St. John the Baptist Parish awoke Wednesday to a landscape of utterly mangled homes and vehicles, the work of a tornado that struck just as unexpectedly and as ferociously as the flooding that hit some of the same neighborhoods during Hurricane Isaac four years ago.
And yet, amid torn roofs and overturned cars, officials reported no deaths in or around LaPlace, where the twister touched down Tuesday with 130 mph winds. The 10 or 15 injuries reported were relatively mild, mostly bumps and scrapes.
Either way, the town had to put itself back together again for a second time.
Officials said the tornado — an EF-2 on the 0-to-5 Enhanced Fujita scale — damaged at least 200 buildings in the parish and created a checkerboard of destruction when viewed from the air.
More than 9,000 people were without power, and homeowners recounted terrifying near-misses with collapsing walls.
LaPlace was the hardest-hit of St. John’s communities after the tornado struck there about 4:15 p.m. and cut a path of destruction 200 yards wide and 4.5 miles long, with the Cambridge, Riverlands subdivision, Palmetto, Indigo Parkway and Belle Terre areas damaged most.
What promised to be a long clean-up process had begun by Wednesday, as deputies patrolled for possible looters, and residents began to piece their houses back together.
Parish President Natalie Robottom said she couldn’t believe only minor injuries were reported, given the extent of the destruction. “If we have a saving grace, it’s that,” she said.
That sentiment was shared by Nykia Chambers, 23, who was inside her family’s house on Lexington Drive with her 12-year-old sister when the storm hit. When Chambers saw the wind kicking up, she rushed her sister to the house’s bathroom.
Chambers said she was on the phone with her mother the whole time. “All she hears is us just screaming,” she said.
She said a cousin saw Chambers’ Dodge Neon being lifted into the air. Realizing his relative was in danger, the cousin drove over and kicked down the door to rescue the sisters.
By the time Chambers returned after the storm passed, the roof of the bathroom had collapsed.
Chambers and her family were retrieving what possessions they could hours later, and throughout many LaPlace neighborhoods, residents were doing the same thing Wednesday.
Craig and Valerie Paulina’s house in LaPlace’s Indigo Estates neighborhood lost its backyard shed and much of its roof in a matter of moments. Just as they did after Hurricane Isaac in 2012, when their house took on a foot of water, the Paulinas were salvaging clothes as they prepared to stay with relatives for months.
Valerie Paulina said she was lying on her bed when her husband called to say a tornado had just been spotted.
“I think I hear something,” Paulina told herself. Then, she heard something hit her roof and breaking glass, and she scrambled to her laundry room. More pieces of the roof fell throughout the night, and pieces of insulation lay scattered about the floor.
After Isaac, Paulina said, she comforted herself with the thought that “at least we got to redo our kitchen. Now, we gotta do it again.”
Parish trucks, contractors’ rigs and insurance adjusters’ SUVs crowded LaPlace’s subdivisions Wednesday. Robottom said officials were hoping power in the parish would be fully restored by 5 p.m. Thursday, and they were counting on assistance from the Red Cross, volunteers from around the country and neighboring government bodies to aid in the recovery.
The New Orleans Fire Department was among the agencies pitching in. Firefighters, captains and chiefs helped set up a temporary shelter at the Emily C. Watkins Elementary School, although officials said it was never used by more than 10 people.
Parish schools were closed Wednesday. Officials said the public ones — none of which were damaged — are expected to reopen Monday. Two campuses didn’t have power Wednesday, and another two were being used for relief efforts.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Mike Tregre warned both residents and outsiders against trying to loot those victimized by the severe weather. He promised his deputies would be out in full force in vehicles 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.”
Tregre said things were largely calm early Wednesday afternoon. His office had received only one report of a possible looting, he said, recalling numerous such reports during Isaac’s aftermath.
From fear to optimism, reactions to the latest storm to hit St. John varied.
Workers were removing solar panels from 49-year-old postman Carl Terry’s roof to ward off the threat of further collapse, and he said the damage to his property reminded him of his experience as a Marine in the Gulf War.
“This is what it looks like after the bombs go boom,” Terry said. But he said he was going to maintain his sense of humor, even though he would be forced to live in a hotel for the near future. Part of his garage roof was missing, he said, but his red 2006 Chevrolet Corvette was miraculously unharmed. At least, Terry joked, “I got the skylight I always wanted.”
Valorie Charles, meanwhile, struggled to hold back tears as she looked at a sheared roof and scattered insulation inside her house near Cambridge Drive. The home was vandalized after Hurricane Katrina and took water during Hurricane Isaac, but she was never as scared as she was when she was hit by falling debris on Tuesday night, she said. She told her family she did not want to stay there.
“Thank God we got out alive three times,” Charles, 46, said. “It’s bad. I don’t know what to do.”
Other residents whose houses were among the worst hit, as well as parish officials, said they had no doubt about the recovery.
Neither Katrina, 2008’s Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, nor Isaac defeated St. John, they said. Nor had other incidents that shocked the community, such as a 2012 ambush that left two parish sheriff’s deputies dead and two others wounded, or a massive school building fire last year that displaced hundreds of students at two different campuses, they said.
St. John School Board member Russ Wise said most people won’t give even a fleeting thought to moving from the parish, despite the frequently turbulent weather.
“People all over this region are resigned to the fact that something from the sky, or rising water, can get you,” Wise said. “The fact is, stuff happens everywhere.”
Robottom, for her part, said, “We’re going to get through this — as we’ve done before.”