CONVENT — Following his dad around as young boys do, 4-year-old Garrett Brown emerged from behind the pile of plastic, wood, clothes and debris that had been his family’s home until the day before, holding up a pair of decorative bull horns nearly as tall as him.
A gift his grandparents gave the young Texan and fan of bull-riding, the horns were among the few scattered belongings Garrett and his parents could salvage Wednesday from their smashed travel trailer in the rear of the Sugar Hill RV Park in Convent.
One of a pack of as many as 10 tornadoes that tore through southeast Louisiana and Mississippi on Tuesday afternoon devastated the park, killing two and injuring more than 40.
Garrett’s dad, Zach Brown, 26, had moved his family to St. James Parish in November to work at the nearby CF Industries plant near Donaldsonville and, like many of the semi-permanent residents of the RV park, take advantage of industrial expansions happening along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Zach, Garrett and his mom, Meagan Chomas, were among dozens of residents who showed up at the park and in nearby neighborhoods Wednesday. It was a ritual played out across several south Louisiana parishes, as people assessed damage to homes and businesses, started cleaning up and began to think about the future after a harrowing Tuesday in which many described narrowly escaping the damage caused by tornado winds.
The EF-2 tornado in Convent, packing winds of 111 to 135 mph, appeared to have saved its worst for the rear of the 27-acre park where Brown and Chomas lived.
Trailers were tossed like Matchbox cars and piled or smashed against one another. The belongings of those who once lived in the trailers were spread out on the ground like an awful collage. Cars and trucks were crunched and tossed in ditches as if caught in a highway crash.
In some places in the park, blank concrete pads were the only indication left that a trailer had once sat there.
“That’s home out there, you know, and it’s gone,” said Chomas, 25, a native of Paris, Texas.
The Weather Service investigated seven tornado tracks Wednesday, but Ken Graham, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Slidell, said seven or 10 tornadoes may have been on those tracks.
“It’s probably going to be closer to 10,” Graham said.
The tornado that hit Sugar Hill left a path of about a third of a mile wide, crossing the Mississippi a quarter-mile north of the travel trailer park and cutting through neighborhoods along River Road before slamming into the park and then hitting a nearby public housing project.
“That’s what we consider a strong tornado,” Michael Koziara, NWS meteorologist, said of the St. James’ tornado’s EF-2 rating on the Enhanced Fujita scale.
St. James Parish authorities identified one of the men killed as David Eugene Swann, 59, of Satsuma, Alabama. The second man killed is unidentified, said Maj. Sid Berthelot, St. James sheriff’s chief of operations. (Update, 9:50 a.m. Wednesday: The second victim has been ID'd. Click here to read more.)
After checking a list of residents in the park and tracking down the owners of smashed cars and trucks, Sheriff Willy Martin Jr. said authorities believe that the second victim may be the only person still missing among the RV park residents.
Preliminary results from the Weather Service indicate tornadoes that hit in Kenner south of the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and in the Madisonville area were both EF-0. Other tracks being investigated include those in Ascension, Assumption, Livingston, St. John the Baptist and St. Helena parishes, as well as Pearl River County, Mississippi.
Martin said the tornado in St. James severely damaged 75 homes and roughly 160 to 170 trailers and RVs in Sugar Hill.
Rick Webre, director of the Ascension Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said a suspected tornado that ripped through a commercial area in Prairieville damaged seven businesses. Four homes to the northeast also have moderate to minor damage.
In Assumption, parish officials are still assessing the extent of the damage in Belle River and Paincourtville but estimate that at least 15 to 20 homes were destroyed, and up to a hundred more were “substantially” damaged, said John Boudreaux, head of parish emergency management.
Parish-level authorities and Gov. John Bel Edwards, who visited Convent and Paincourtville Wednesday, were uncertain whether the damage would be enough to meet a statewide threshold to draw help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel, who was visiting the Schexnaydre Street neighborhood Wednesday near the RV park, was thinking the damage might not be enough.
“Of course, that’s a rough judgement, but we don’t think we’re going make the state threshold,” Roussel said. He said the parish and state have declared emergencies, so they can provide some help.
“We’re going to try to do as much as we could for the people.”
The random savageness of the tornadoes left jarring scenes of destruction and fresh memories of their power Wednesday across the River and Florida parishes as residents struggled to take stock of what happened.
A pediatric clinic located just behind the Commerce Centre Shopping Center on Airline Highway in Prairieville was in the middle of repairs Wednesday after the storm claimed part of its roof and one of its exterior doors.
Dr. Samantha Gulino, one of three pediatricians at Magnolia Pediatrics, said the clinic had planned to close early Tuesday because of the weather and only one mom and her child were at the office when the storm struck.
The doctors, patient and other staff heard the “wind howling and the building started shaking,” Gulino said.
Everyone ran into one examining room in the interior of the building, and the storm was over in minutes, she said.
“It happened at 12:12 (p.m.),” Gulino said. “We have it on (surveillance) video.”
Here is a quick look at most of the circulations. Just about everyone one of these tracks had a tornado reported. pic.twitter.com/zzjAda2Rsa— NWS New Orleans (@NWSNewOrleans) February 24, 2016
In Paincourtville, west of Convent, the front door of Dawn Delhommer’s home now opens on the back patio.
Tuesday’s tornado in this Assumption Parish community pushed the building off its foundation while she was inside with her sons. Winds nudged the home toward Bayou Lafourche, but stopped just short of sending the family in the water.
“We were right there at the bayou,” Delhommer said.
She was waiting for the insurance appraiser Wednesday afternoon as teams of her family and friends loaded trucks with her furniture, clothes and other possessions. Delhommer knows the house on La. 1 is a total loss, but after almost toppling into the water, she is grateful her family is safe.
“We’re alive, and that’s all that matters,” she said.
Much of Liz LeBlanc George’s business on La. 1, LeBlanc Brothers Ready Mix Concrete, looked like it had born the impact of an explosion.
“That’s my two (office) walls over there ... lying on the ground all over,” said George, part owner of the company.
Pieces of a building lay on its side. The parts of the roof were nowhere to be seen. An 18-wheeler and a trailer flipped. George and her siblings had just bought two new cement mixers. Metal beams had fallen on both.
George said she is now wondering how to take care of the roughly 20 people who work at the destroyed office. The company has two satellite locations, and a friend offered a temporary work space. Staff members on Wednesday were meeting with the insurance company and “just picking through everything” that could be salvaged, George said.
Her father opened the company in 1945, and it’s been at the corner of La. 70 and La. 1 since 1966. George wasn’t sure Wednesday whether they’d rebuild what was lost or move on.
Still, Delhommer, George and others took comfort in the support of family and their communities. In Assumption, a parish shelter became unnecessary because friends and families apparently opened their doors, officials said.
At the Community Worship Center, business, religious, governmental and civic groups had set up a one-stop location for families to pick up clothes, food, towels, toiletries and other essentials. Inmates from the jail carried infant supplies, a school official set up canned food, and volunteers paddle-stirred hundreds of servings of gumbo and jambalaya in the parking lot.
“This is how this community comes together,” said pastor Brad Collins.
Back in Convent, Zach, Meagan and Garrett had traveled from job to job in their now smashed trailer, their rolling home away from home.
With roots back in Paris, Texas, the young family was preparing for the long drive west.
“Go home and start over. That’s all we can do really,” Zach Brown said. --
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Advocate reporter Amy Wold contributed to this story. Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.