Marquitha Reed said Saturday’s tornado in Palmetto was like living through “The Wizard of Oz.”
Reed, 37, her husband and three children were sleeping in their home on Bolden Road when the windows blew out. Reed was startled awake, but as soon as the realization hit, she and her husband were thrown to the floor, skidding this way and that as rain pelted through gaping holes in the house. The building spun as she tried frantically to reach her children, ages 14, 10 and eight, in another room.
By the time Reed was able to stand on her feet and reach the hallway, roughly 15 to 20 seconds later, she said the tornado had passed. Their home of 14 years, they later discovered, was picked up and moved a couple hundred feet from its foundation, nearly landing in the roadway.
“I’ve never experienced something like this. Never,” she said. Her greatest fear throughout the ordeal was the survival of her children: “When I heard all three of them holler I just hit my knees.”
The Reed family was among roughly a dozen around St. Landry Parish facing damage from Saturday’s severe weather, with Bolden Road off La. 359 suffering the worst devastation.
Roger Erickson, of the National Weather Service in Lake Charles, was on scene Saturday morning and said the storm was classified at its height as an EF3, with wind speeds reaching 130 to 140 miles per hour.
One person was killed and seven others were transported to a local hospital for injuries. Five of the people had been released from the hospital as of 11:30 a.m. while two people were transported to Lafayette and Alexandria, St. Landry Parish President Jessie Bellard said.
Jose Antonio Higareda, 27, was identified as the man killed; he died en route to a local hospital. Bellard said Higareda was identified by a cousin and his body was released to Williams Funeral Home in Opelousas so family arrangements could be made. Reed said Higareda moved to the area to work for her husband's cousin at a farm adjacent to their house on Bolden Road.
The parish president said Higareda’s mobile home was ripped from its foundation and strewn across several fields.
“I’ve been in public service all my adult life in fire and police … and you have to see it to believe," Bellard said. "This is not something we often see in any situation…It’s just unbelievable."
Approximately 15 homes were damaged throughout the parish during the severe weather event, with eight homes that were completely destroyed or had major damage. Five homes were damaged off La. 360 north of Palmetto, he said.
Erickson said the National Weather Service was working to determine if one continuous tornado caused the damage or two separate events.
Van Reed, St. Landry Parish director of emergency preparedness, said a team member with AccuWeather was on site Saturday and estimated the tornado touched down at 2:15 a.m. on Bolden Road. Then either the same storm or a separate tornado touched down off La. 360 around 2:30 a.m.
Reed and Bellard said emergency responders were alerted to the storm when a SLEMCO crew that had been working on Bolden Street at the time called to report the tornado sighting.
Bellard said priority number one is helping families salvage what they can from the remnants of their homes. Evidence of their lives was littered down the road: a baby stroller lay in a muddy field, along with mismatched shoes, coolers, sopping wet clothing, strips and hunks of metal, splintered wood, Christmas decorations and throw pillows, all damp and streaked in mud.
Marquitha Reed and her husband, Blake, worked alongside a handful of friends to drag what they could from their home, like clothing, books and important paperwork. The family’s donkey was killed in the storm and buried in their yard, while other animals either fled, taken in by family or picked up St. Landry Parish Animal Control as the family took stock of their residence. A 30 by 50-foot metal shed used for storing odds and ends -- like photos, Christmas decorations and toys -- was a heap in their backyard.
Reed said the devastation will take time to process, but the residents along Bolden Road are a family, and they’ll get through it together.
“What'cha gonna do? There’s nothing you can do except pick up and go on. I’m glad we’re alive,” Marquitha Reed said. “I have hope, but it’s just one step at a time.”
Carol Johnson Tademy, 54, took those first recovery steps for her brother, Lionel Johnson, and his wife, Cathy Johnson, as she sorted through the pile of debris that once made up their home.
Tademy said her relatives are the two victims still hospitalized; Lionel Johnson suffered spine, neck and possible lung injuries, and Cathy Johnson suffered spinal injuries and eight broken ribs. Both were conscious and able to speak on the phone to family from their respective hospitals, which Tademy took as an optimistic sign.
Tademy’s mobile home and other family homes a few hundred yards from the Johnsons’ residence were untouched by the tornado. Tademy said she woke and gathered family members when emergency alerts began ringing on her phone, but the danger wasn’t stark until she glanced out her mother’s kitchen window and saw the tornado coming over the trees from the direction of La. 359. Family members rushed to a bathroom for shelter and prayed.
“It was just God that was with us...We just huddled up and called on God and it passed over,” Tademy said.
Once clear, they went outside to survey the damage and began to search for their loved ones by calling out their names in the dark. Tademy said they eventually found her brother and sister-in-law lying in a ditch beside the remnants of their home; the residence was thrown diagonally across Bolden Road, the stone steps originally leading to their front door one of few reminders of the home’s original location.
The 54-year-old said they were frantic to get their loved ones out of the rain and tried to move them, but Cathy Johnson, who recently had surgery on her spine and arm, screamed each time they attempted to lift her. Scared to cause more harm, they wrapped the Johnsons in blankets to try to shield them as they waited for emergency responders.
Tademy said they did the same for Jose Higareda, who they found lying in her brother’s yard after being thrown from his mobile home. Higareda was curled in the fetal position and moaning, and they wrapped him in a blanket and tried to offer comfort while they waited for help, she said.
“We prayed and told him it was going to be OK,” Tademy said.