Tornado blindsides south Louisiana

BY STEVE GUST | HOUMA, La. | March 16, 2000

HOUMA, La. (March 16, 2000) -- A surprise Wednesday tornado stunned residents and has officials surveying damage to this southern Louisiana city.

The 2 p.m. twister, estimated at F1 to F2 strength, touched down east of Houma with little warning and severely damaged at least 40 homes. "I have one of the warning radios and it never went off," said Velma Watson, assistant director of the Terre bone Readiness and Assistance Coalition (TRAC). TRAC, established in the aftermath of 1992's Hurricane Andrew to assist with storm preparedness and response, includes faith-based and nonprofit groups.

"The storm cells weren't expected to dip down, but they did. The tornado followed pretty much on line with Highway 90," Watson added.

The quick-striking storm left behind about a mile of damage and injured 34 people, one of them critically. "But most injuries are ankles or other minor injuries like that," Watson said.

Relief organizations are quickly responding. Among those will be Catholic Social Services and Catholic Charities, Watson said. "The individual Catholic churches will be working with those groups. We're also trying to get other churches involved."

"We have the (American) Red Cross already setting up shelters and the Salvation Army will be here later," she said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to Region VI public affairs spokesman Billy Penn, is monitoring reports provided to them by the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness (LOEP).

"Of the 80 homes damaged, about 40 or so were severe," said Terry Thompson of LOEP. "A store was obliterated and a roof was torn off the Legion Park School. Many cars were damaged along with carports and some mobile homes."

Power initially was off in some 15,000 homes. All were restored by today, Watson said.

Within a few hours after the tornado, Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster signed a proclamation declaring a state of emergency for the area. LOEP has a damage assessment team surveying the Houma area, which has a population of approximately 102,000.

Thompson also noted an on-site damage assessment conducted by Hunt Downer, D-Houma, state representative. "It's amazing, it wakes you up to how devastating Mother Nature can be and how helpless you feel," Downer said.

The number of residents sheltered at this time wasn't clear, Thompson added.

Severe weather was also reported in neighboring Oklahoma. The Grant County sheriff's office reported seeing a tornado near Wakita, in northern Oklahoma -- the same area where the motion picture "Twister" was filmed. But that tornado did no damage. Hail and heavy rains were reported in western Oklahoma, just as northwestern Oklahoma prepared for snow in a late-winter storm.

Posted March 16, 2000

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