Volunteers respond to LA tornado

Nearly 90 percent of homeowners estimated not to have insurance or to be substantially under-insured following March 5 tornado

BY JOHN PAPE | RAYNE, LA | March 30, 2011

Nearly 700 homes were damaged in this Louisiana town.
Credit: DNN/LA Baptist Convention

Nearly a month after a devastating tornado that hit this small Louisiana town volunteers and residents are continuing the clean-up.

At least 683 homes were damaged, of which 42 were completely destroyed and another 48 have been judged to have major damage in the town of 8,500 people in the heart of Cajun country. Few of the homes are adequately insured.

The F-2 tornado, spawned by a fast-moving storm front on March 5, also left one person dead and 12 injured. More than 1,500 had to be evacuated because of natural gas leaks caused by storm damage.

Twenty-one-year-old Jalisa Granger died when a tree fell onto her house. According to Acadia Parish Sheriff’s spokesperson Maxine Trahan, Granger was trying to shield her small child with her body when she was killed.

As residents of Rayne continue to recover, a number of faith-based organizations have stepped forward to provide relief services.

Less than 48 hours after the tornado struck, the United Methodist Committee on Relief offered assistance to the Louisiana United Methodist Disaster Recovery Ministry. Three days later, the Rev. Darryl Tate, director for the ministry, along with an UMCOR staff member, traveled to Rayne to meet with the Rev. Charles Floyd, pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church, and to attend a community meeting to assess disaster recovery needs in the area.

The United Way of Acadiana agreed to provide a grant to the Louisiana United Methodist Disaster Recovery Ministry to employ a case manager to begin working with storm victims seeking help.

To assist with the recovery, UMCOR also provided an emergency grant to the state recovery ministry.

Steve Rainey, a member of First United Methodist Church of Lafayette, will serve as project director for this response beginning April 1. Even before officially starting his duties, Rainey was working to mobilize volunteers with the goal of having recovery teams in the area “by early summer.”

The Louisiana Baptist Convention has also been active, with work crews and heavy equipment. Teams of trained volunteers, working from a command center set up at Rayne’s First Baptist Church, helped residents with clearing debris and tree limbs, cutting the items and placing them at the roadside for crews to remove.

In addition to the chainsaw teams to clear debris, the Baptists also sent chaplaincy and feeding units to Rayne.

By the end of the first day of work, 26 volunteers had completed five jobs and served 45 meals.

Maybelle Trahan, 72, lives in one of the homes damaged by the storm. Trahan, who lives alone, said she would have had no way of removing the debris from her home without the help of the Baptist volunteers.

“I’m an old woman; I can’t lift all that stuff. I have to live on my Social Security and I don’t have the money to pay someone to do it,” Trahan said. “Those nice people came up and said, ‘Mrs. Trahan, would you like us to cut that stuff up and move it for you?’ I can’t tell you how grateful I was.”

Trahan also praised the work crew for their concern.

“They asked me if I needed help, if I had food in the house; they really made sure I was alright. They’re all wonderful Christian people,” Trahan said. “One young man even prayed with me. That meant a lot.”

In addition, late last week, Catholic Charities USA announced it is providing a disaster relief designed to be used to help disaster-impacted households meet their immediate needs.

More than 60 American Red Cross volunteers from Acadiana, Baton Rouge and New Orleans responded to Rayne in the days following the tornado, providing first aid stations, a mobile feeding center and a fixed feeding center at the Rayne Central Fire Station.

The Red Cross also opened an emergency shelter where displaced residents were provided with temporary housing and hot meals until they could either return home or find other lodging until their homes could be repaired.

Pauline Patton’s apartment was damaged by the tornado, forcing her to stay at the Red Cross shelter at the local Knights of Columbus Hall.

“The Red Cross gave me a place to stay, food, these clothes and medicine that I needed,” Patton said. “They’ve been a great help.”

The agency also provided damage assessment teams and referrals for psychological counseling for tornado survivors.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal formally requested a presidential disaster declaration for Rayne. Once a federal disaster has been declared, the city and affected residents will be eligible for grants, low-cost loans and other assistance.

In his request for the declaration, Jindal estimated the city suffered $1.85 million in direct losses. Of that, $1.2 million would be to cover losses by homeowners, $118,000 for public buildings and utilities, with the rest for cleanup expenses, including $336,000 for debris removal.

“The tornado activity resulted in widespread damages to numerous houses, destroyed the city's water treatment plant and caused extensive damage to Rayne Public High School,” Jindal wrote in his letter to Federal Emergency Management Agency regional administrator Anthony Russell.

Of the homes destroyed or so badly damaged they were no longer livable, Rayne Mayor James Petitjean said 90 percent where owner-occupied and of that total, 88 percent carried no insurance or were under-insured.

According to the Louisiana State Fire Marshal's Office, 42 homes were destroyed and 48 sustained major damage. Another 79 houses sustained minor to moderate damage and another 514 homes sustained at least some damage.

Petitjean called the storm the worst natural disaster to hit Rayne in recent memory.

In addition to what Jindal is seeking, Petitjean said the city was also asking for federal rental assistance for the 100 or so families left homeless by the disaster for up to six months so they will have a place to live while their homes are being repaired or rebuilt.

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