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Tornado follows LA job disaster

Already reeling from economic disaster, residents of this small Louisiana town are now coping with the devastation of last week's deadly tornado.

BY SUSAN KIM | OLLA, La. | December 1, 2004

"We're talking about trailers that literally exploded."

—Rev. Dr. Curtis Carroll, Jr.

Already reeling from economic disaster, residents of this small Louisiana town are now coping with the devastation of last week's deadly tornado.

Many people in the town - home to 1,400 people - lost their jobs within the last five years, when both Hollaway Sports Wear and Louisiana Pacific shut down.

Area employees - from Olla, Tullos and Urania communities - lost 424 jobs in the five years before the tornado hit, according to reports from city planners. Most of the workforce now drives more than 20 miles to their jobs.

The tornado added visible devastation to the quiet erosion in this town, where there are virtually no available rental properties.

Standing in the yard of the Olla United Methodist Church, the Rev. Dr. Curtis Carroll, Jr., looks across the street at houses that have been leveled to the foundation by last week's tornado.

On Nov. 23 - the Tuesday night when the storm moved through - Carroll was sitting in his den sorting through some fishing gear. "Then I saw a tree limb coming at me. I thought 'how could a tree limb be coming at me?' "

The limb had busted through three sets of walls, Carroll realized, and then the air pressure and the wind sent fishing lures flying around the room. "My dog got nicked on the back, and I got nicked twice on my hand."

In the chaos that followed, Carroll became a "first responder" - a neighbor who reaches out to his fellow neighbors. "My neighbor drove across the street in his pickup truck with his infant and a boxer dog. He had three flats by the time he drove the 40 yards. But we got the baby situated."

Then other families started knocking at the door, Carroll said, some friends and some strangers. "We had a Baptist family and Pentecostal family. It became a very ecumenical effort."

While at University of Chicago earning his doctorate in human rights, Carroll took an ethics class at the medical school. "My friend gave me all these sets of purple scrubs so that's what I issued to all my house guests who temporarily needed clothes."

One man arrived in just an overcoat and slippers, Carroll said. "The wind blew his pajama bottoms off."

By Wednesday, townspeople in Olla were still cleaning up, and mourning the loss of one resident.

"She was blown out of her house and impaled in the yard," said Carroll. "I talked to the person who found her, and that person is going to go get some counseling. That's not a sight you ever forget."

Olla has a ministerial alliance, and pastors have been working together to try to formulate a long-term recovery plan, said Carroll.

One African-American Baptist Church - which is situated outside of Olla - found its membership hit extremely hard, according to the ministerial alliance. Only one member of that church had insurance.

Olla, with a population of about 1,400 people, has 587 homes. Of those, local officials said 163 -- or about 30 percent of them -- were completely destroyed or damaged beyond immediate use.

"We're talking about trailers that literally exploded," said Carroll.

The high school sustained $6 million in damages, and the school will be reconvening in the closed garment factory.

The long-term needs won't be just related to rebuilding structures, Carroll said, because people's emotional needs will linger as well. "I'm familiar with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder," he said. "We know we're going to have people a few months down the road who will be falling apart over this. Also, the initial shock will wear off in a week or 10 days, and that's when tempers will flare."

Carroll remains concerned about Olla's local leaders, he said, and has offered spiritual care - and friendship - to the town's mayor. "I told him that, when he needs to, he can come with me, and we'll take a ride in my pickup truck, and we'll take a ride on the boat. The mayor was in South Carolina at his daughter's house when it happened, and he's feeling a little guilt. He doesn't need to feel that way - but he does."

Some residents are already worried that people will simply move away from Olla instead of rebuilding. Town leaders and LaSalle Parish officials are pushing for a federal disaster declaration.

Federal Emergency Management Agency teams will arrive on Thursday to assess damage. The federal officials - accompanied by state and local officials - will also tour areas in Caldwell, Vernon and St. Tammany parishes.

Despite hardship, Olla remains a place where neighbors are "first responders," whether the disaster is economic or natural.

After living in New York City, Chicago and Atlanta, Carroll said he's satisfied to reside in Olla - even in the aftermath of such severe damage. "It's one of the happiest places I've ever been in my life."

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