CONVENT — In the relative silence of Tuesday’s lunch hour near the rear of the Sugar Hill RV Park, a stiff wind ruffled bouquets decorating two make-shift crosses honoring the memories of David Swann and Scott Ellis, out-of-state contractors and travel trailer roommates who died here in last week’s tornado .
A flock of black birds picked at the grass near the crosses marking the site where Swann and Ellis had lived and likely spent their last moments the afternoon of Feb. 23, when 11 tornadoes tore across southeast Louisiana and a record 12th hit the southwest part of the state.
For just a time Tuesday, one week since the 140 mph EF-3 slammed into Paincourtville and Convent, Bobcats, front loaders and other vehicles were mostly idle or far enough away to maintain some quiet in this part of the now largely vacant RV park.
Soon enough, though, workers strode back toward their vehicles, the rumble of engines resumed, and an old utility bucket truck and a front loader worked together to pull and push the jumbled remnants of what were people’s homes past the memorial crosses and toward the rear of the park, creating a metallic scraping sound and scarring the asphalt road along the way.
Demolition and cleanup work began in earnest Tuesday at the Sugar Hill park ahead of the St. James Parish Sheriff’s Office’s planned pullback from the area Tuesday evening.
Hoping to clear pads for some of his displaced tenants, park owner Mark Anderson said he is removing trailers which insurers have already been through and from which residents have gotten what they could.
Anderson said his park has sustained $2 million in damage. He is self-insured.
“I’ll be alright. I’m (going to) be alright,” said Anderson, who has various business interests, including farming and publishing. “I’ve been lucky in my life, but again it is a loss.”
The worst of last week’s pack of tornadoes, the Convent twister sent 31 people from the Sugar Hill park to medical facilities, with seven in critical condition on arrival, a parish news release says. As many as 50 more were injured and treated at the scene or sought their own medical care.
Citing the American Red Cross, St. James Parish officials added that 123 mobile homes were destroyed and another 61 damaged, most of which were in the Sugar Hill park.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, joint state FEMA teams were taking stock of the damage in Assumption Parish and elsewhere to see if the federal agency can offer long-term help to residents.
For access to FEMA’s Individual Assistance program, an area must be in a presidentially declared disaster area. The criteria for the assistance are subjective.
Individual assistance offers direct financial aid to people for temporary housing and home and property repairs or replacement.
State, federal and some parish officials noted Tuesday that, in comparison with the widespread and better anticipated damage from a large hurricane, assessing more isolated pockets of damage from tornadoes takes a little more time.
After some early local and state assessments last week, state homeland security officials requested on Thursday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency bring in the damage assessment teams, said Mike Steele, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Julie Bradford, FEMA spokeswoman, said three teams were formed and were gathering data in multiple parishes Tuesday.
“I think this turnaround time has been exactly as it should be in that we got the request and we’re on the ground,” Bradford said.
Dollar figure estimates of damage were not available yet from parish officials in Assumption or St. James, but in Assumption, 165 loads of debris had been hauled away through Monday.
Forty-three homes and two businesses were destroyed, another 22 homes or other structures had major damage while another 66 homes had minor to moderate damage, parish officials said.
Daggs Street in Paincourtville is one of the harder hit areas in Assumption. Some homes were ripped apart, but others had far less damage.
Workers with FEMA, the U.S. Small Business Administration and the state on Tuesday afternoon stopped at the home of Norman Jones, 64, who had roof damage from a fallen tree.
Jones, a carpenter by trade who is recovering from triple-bypass heart surgery, said after the visit that football players and an assistant principal at his grandson’s school repaired the roof.
“They come to help me, and we fixed it,” Jones said.
While Jones, who is uninsured, said he was uncertain he would need much FEMA help, other residents on Daggs Street said the federal assistance is needed because several of the worst hit of their neighbors are on fixed incomes and may not be insured.
“The ones up front really took a toll, and a lot of the people are older people, and they’ve been here before me, so I know they’ve been here a long time,” said Zennia Caldwell, 68, who’s lived on Daggs Street for more than 40 years.
Over in Convent, Anderson is preparing for a time of less chaos when his displaced residents can take a moment to think about things again, not life, death or near-misses.
A day before the big equipment began dragging trailers to the back of the park, volunteers from St. James Community Church in Paulina and Bridgepoint Church in Gramercy had answered Anderson’s call and spent much of Monday combing through debris for personal items that could be salvaged.
Anderson said he is storing them in a warehouse in Gonzales and will sort them for residents to find in the weeks ahead.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.