UPDATE, 11 p.m.:
An Entergy spokesman said there were slightly more than 600 power outages remaining in St. John the Baptist Parish late Thursday, two days after an EF-2 tornado damaged hundreds of homes in LaPlace on Tuesday afternoon.
That number was down from more than 9,000 outages at one point Wednesday, and it was down from more than 4,000 earlier Thursday evening, when officials originally hoped to have most power in St. John restored.
Pastor Neil Bernard frowned and shook his head in disbelief Thursday as he explained he was unsure how much of his LaPlace church’s two buildings could be salvaged after a strong tornado two days earlier ripped off some of the ceilings and punched out some of the walls.
But a smile returned to Bernard’s face when discussing the 100 volunteers who had flocked to New Wine Christian Fellowship to patch up the holes and wipe up the humid, stinky mess the twister and its 130-mph winds left behind.
It was because of those volunteers that Bernard could focus on the bigger picture — what to renovate and what to replace — without worrying about some of the short-term headaches that natural disasters create for their victims.
“They’re the lifeblood,” Bernard said of the many helping hands who had come forward. “Without them, we couldn’t get anything done.”
The volunteers assisting Bernard were but a portion of a sizable philanthropic effort that mobilized quickly after Tuesday’s tornado wrecked at least 400 structures in St. John the Baptist Parish, most of them residences in LaPlace, officials said.
No one died or even suffered serious injuries from the disaster, which mangled a number of cars as well.
By Thursday, there were faint signs of returning normalcy: Some schools were open again, as was Airline Highway, the major traffic thoroughfare.
Yet, with more than 4,000 customers in St. John still lacking electricity at one point Thursday — down from more than 9,000 a day earlier — it was clear that plenty of residents could benefit from receiving even the most basic supplies as they began turning their attention to repairing their property. And plenty did benefit.
Groups ranging from faith-based nonprofits to large oil companies had donated hundreds of cases of bottled water, roof tarpaulins, cleaning supply baskets, toiletry packages and hot meals by Thursday morning, St. John official Dana Milioto said. Almost 2,000 bags of ice also were donated, and dozens then volunteered to give all the items away free at four sites Thursday, with similar efforts scheduled for later in the week, Milioto said.
The donations did not go to waste. Less than four hours into the supplies distribution at Ascension of Our Lord Church, what seemed like “a thousand people” had shown up to pick up items, said Michael Abbate, of Knights of Columbus Council 9623.
Cars with multiple occupants waited in a line that stretched down the block to get the supplies, which were handed out in a parking lot, drive-through style.
About every third or fourth driver asked parish Recreation Department employees Barry Wallace and Ray Williams for a roof tarp, hinting at the extent of the property damage inflicted by the tornado, an EF-2 on the 0-to-5 Enhanced Fujita scale.
Meanwhile, a constant stream of people marched up to a tent where volunteers offered take-out boxes of lasagna and fried chicken. Folks walked away with as many as they could stack up and balance.
Among the most appreciative recipients was Sidney Darbay. Two days earlier, Darbay, 23, was outside his Carrollwood Drive home working on his pickup truck during what he thought was a break in the stormy weather, but then the twister furiously swirled through his neighborhood.
As Darbay scrambled for cover in his house, the tornado leveled his truck and carport and damaged his home’s roof, he said, pausing to express his gratitude for still being alive Thursday.
Darbay said his focus now is on rebuilding his home while preserving as much of what he has left as possible. That goal was immensely aided by those who donated time and money, he said.
“It’s a huge weight off your shoulder,” said Darbay, who was headed for supplies with some neighbors. “You feel like you have somebody you can lean on ... when you thought everything was lost.”
Parish President Natalie Robottom echoed Darbay, saying the philanthropists who had sprung into action after the tornado “are so much better at this than (government) could ever dream to be.”
“It’s been proven through every disaster,” Robottom said. “Government cannot do this without the help of the community ... who do this on a (frequent) basis.”
Nonetheless, despite the outpouring of generosity since the tornado, St. John leaders acknowledged there were myriad challenges ahead for a community that less than four years ago was struck a heavy blow by Hurricane Isaac.
Tornado victims, for instance, need to be on guard against unscrupulous contractors who may be looking to defraud desperate residents, Sheriff Mike Tregre and District Attorney Bridget Dinvaut said. Residents and business owners have insurance claims to file, and Robottom said she and her staff have the possibility of federal disaster relief aid to explore.
So about 40 local pastors joined parish leaders at a prayer service outside St. John’s government headquarters in LaPlace and asked for divine assistance moving on from the tornado.
Among those praying was Bernard.
“Every catastrophe, every calamity, God, you’ll turn it around for the good,” Bernard said at the service. “We’ll rebuild and be better for it.”
St. John the Baptist Parish residents affected by the tornado that struck LaPlace on Tuesday can pick up free tarps, water, ice, cleaning materials, care packages and other supplies at various locations until 7 p.m. Thursday, officials said.
Pick-up spots are the Arcuri Center, 1020 Cambridge Drive; Ascension of Our Lord Church, 1900 Greenwood Drive; LaPlace Elementary, 393 Greenwood Drive; and Celebration Church, 3400 Highway 51, all in LaPlace.
Celebration Church will also be dispensing free tetanus shots, parish spokeswoman Baileigh Rebowe Helm said.
Those who wish to drop off donations or receive communitywide information can do so at the parish community center, at 2900 Highway 51 in LaPlace. Officials said they are accepting cleaning supplies, yard equipment, batteries and flashlights, but not money.
Meanwhile, more than 3,000 Entergy customers in St. John remained without power Thursday morning, but that number was down significantly from more than 9,000 on Wednesday.
Officials said they hoped to have power completely restored by 5 p.m. Thursday.
Further, authorities have reportedly lifted all major traffic restrictions enacted in the aftermath of the tornado.
Airline Highway, for instance, is fully open after being closed from LaPlace to Reserve on Wednesday, Total Traffic New Orleans reported. The Belle Terre exit ramps on Interstate 10 are open as well.
Separately, though St. John’s public schools and Ascension of Our Lord won’t resume classes until Monday, St. Joan of Arc Catholic School and St. Peter’s Catholic School were open Thursday, and so was Reserve’s South Central Louisiana Technical College.
St. Charles Catholic would be closed until further notice, and Reserve’s Riverside Academy anticipated reopening Friday, officials said.
Tuesday afternoon’s tornado in LaPlace was a 2 on the 0-to-5 Enhanced Fujita scale. Packing 130 mph winds, it damaged at least 200 structures in the parish as well as a number of vehicles, but the only injuries people reported were minor, officials said.
Officials were scheduled to hold a noon prayer vigil Thursday at the parish government’s headquarters. Residents can reach parish officials by phone at 504.652.2222 until 4:30 p.m. Thursday.
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