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Cleanup begins in Houma

BY JOSH LEWIS | HOUMA, LA | March 18, 2000

HOUMA, LA (March 18, 2000) -- Joe Rodrigue didn't think it was going to be that bad. After all, the rumbling only lasted five or six seconds.

"I knew it was a tornado, but I guess I underestimated the power of Mother Nature," he said.

He and his brother Ike stood on the flattened remains of a three-car garage in the back of their family's home here, prying it apart with crowbar and hammer so work crews could haul away the pieces.

The twister spared their home but its capriciousness was evident: not 30 yards away at what used to be Sam Mahan's house, the walls invited the full glare of the midday sun; the roof was somewhere down the way.

Mahan and his wife, Michelle, were watching television in the living room with their two sons when the funnel cloud came. She had given birth to the youngest days earlier and was largely immobile from the Caesarian section. He heard what sounded like a bad hail storm and looked outside. Things were flying sideways.

By in the time he could turn around and grab his three-year-old, the roof was off and the wall holding the window he had peeked out lay on the ground.

"Nobody got hurt. Nothing landed on us or anything. It was unbelievable," he said.

Incredible, too, is that amid all of the ripped roofs and splintered trees, only one serious injury was reported.

The two deaths that have been attributed to the same storm system came when a waterspout capsized a shrimp boat south of Houma in the Gulf of Mexico. One member of the three-man crew survived.

Another tornado touched down in the nearby hamlet of Bourg, damaging homes there as well.

Anywhere from 150 to 180 area homes and businesses were damaged in the storm, according to estimates from the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness (LOEP).

That number doesn't include damage to things like sheds, fences or cars, said Velma Watson, Church World Service (CWS) disaster resource consultant and director of the interfaith group Terrebonne Recovery Assistance Committee (TRAC).

Faith-based response organizations, working with TRAC, have been assessing damages and preparing for a Monday meeting of the Unmet Needs Committee.

"I expect it (the number of damaged homes) will probably get higher than that initial assessment after folks get over the shock" and realize they can contact response agencies, said Robert Gorman, director of Catholic Social Services, Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux.

The Red Cross still has four teams conducting damage assessments, said Joni Eaton, a member of the organization's family services staff. Nine people are living in a shelter set up in an area gymnasium. Most appear to be staying with family members, Eaton said.

The United Church of Christ has also established a distribution center for relief supplies, Watson said. Food, blankets and other goods are expected to arrive by truck early next week.

"We're just trying to get an idea of how many families have been affected and how much that kind of aid can be of benefit," said the Rev. Gary Hutchens, a United Church of Christ minister and chair of the Unmet Needs Committee.

An appeal has been issued through CWS for recovery funds, Watson added.

"We are going to need volunteer labor for cleanup crews and for repairs. And that's what I'm trying to do is get some money in here so we can buy (building) supplies," she said.

Arrangements have also been made for recreational vehicles that volunteers often travel in to park for free, with utility hookups, at the Houma Civic Center, she said.

"That's going to be a big help." In the past, TRAC has had to raise money simply to pay for the parking of volunteers' RVs, she said.

Gorman said he has contacted pastors in each of the parishes affected by the tornado and asked them to go out to affected families, Catholic and otherwise, and offer support and inquire about their immediate needs.

Watson also has a contact with a local Seventh Day Adventist Church that will provide relief supplies through Adventist Community Services once she knows what is needed.

Those needs will become clearer after the meeting Monday, which will include faith-based response groups together with the Red Cross and government agencies, she said.

"In this area, we have a very good interchurch and interagency arrangement through TRAC," Gorman said of the interfaith organization that formed in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. "We will cobble together a response package for each storm victim based on the resources each of our agencies brings to the table."

Posted March 18, 2000

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