Tornado still felt by many month after storm

Published 12:11 am Wednesday, March 23, 2016

LAPLACE — Residents are still reeling following the impact of an F1 tornado that ripped through St. John the Baptist Parish Feb. 23. It’s been a month since the natural disaster, and, for some residents, things aren’t back to normal yet.

There were more than 300 homes and 50 businesses damaged or destroyed by the winds that exceeded 130 mph.

Erin Harris-Williams and Corey Williams live on Hancock Drive in Cambridge. Harris-Williams was home alone with her dog Deuce when the power went out Feb. 23.

Then, an alert buzzed on her phone telling her to take cover.

She described the next couple of minutes as the most freighting experience of her whole life.

“I experienced Hurricane Isaac, but I wasn’t alone, it was my husband and I,” she said. “The fear was on a different level for the tornado, because I didn’t have much prep time for it. It was just something that came out of nowhere.”

Harris-Williams was able to grab Deuce and take shelter in the closet of the master bedroom.

As the ceiling in the master bedroom fell in, Harris-Williams could see light coming in through the crack on her closet door. She heard the sound of water in the walls from where a faucet in the back yard had been ripped out and was leaking through the house.

After she could see light, Harris-Williams and Deuce relocated to the bathroom for fear the whole ceiling would cave in on the two of them.

“As I got out of the closet and looked up, there was a huge hole in my ceiling in my bedroom and I could see outside,” she said. “I knew something had happened to my roof. I didn’t know how bad it was, but I knew something had happened.”

Williams was able to contact her sister in St. Mary Parish who contacted the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Office to rescue Harris-Williams. Sheriff Mike Tregre was on scene and helped Harris-Williams, along with Deuce, exit the home.

Williams said the home’s attic was damaged, a quarter of the roof on the front side of the house was ripped off, the air conditioner unit was blown away, the fences in the backyard fell down and siding along the house was shredded. A faucet in the backyard was also torn out, causing leaking in the home. On the inside, parts of the ceiling had been torn apart, the garage door caved in and seven windows were broken.

Until their home can be repaired, Harris-Williams said her family will continue to live at an extended stay hotel in Kenner.

One of her neighbors on the corner of Hancock and Lexington was home with her daughter when the tornado came through.

Casandra Wiltz and her 9-year-old daughter Lauren huddled in the shower of a bathroom before, Wiltz says, “the spirit of God told me to move.”

“By the time I got to the other bathroom, the wind had pulled the door of that bathroom off the hinges,” Wiltz said.

Thankfully, Wiltz and her daughter were not injured during the storm. Their home is a different story.

Wiltz said it was a total loss.

“The roof is gone, and the walls are in the den,” she said. “It’s bad. I’m ready to move on. I’d like to move somewhere else.”

Like many others, Wiltz is still trying to recover.

After spending a few weeks at her father’s house in Algiers, then a few more in a LaPlace motel, she and her husband Derrick, along with Lauren, have found temporary digs in a friend’s for-sale condo in Indigo Lakes.

Gene Franques, who lives on Moss Street in the Spring Meadows Subdivision, has seen damage before.

Franques had not fully recovered from the three feet of water Hurricane Isaac sent into his house in 2012 when the Feb. 23 tornado clipped his house.

“It was not a direct hit,” Franques said. “There are people around me who have it much, much worse.”

He was left with roof damage, no windows, glass everywhere and a partially collapsed bedroom wall. He said he has no homeowners insurance and is still paying off debt from Hurricane Isaac.

“I’m not despondent about it,” he said. “It’s not in my control. I’m a very positive person. Help will come when help comes. God will provide.”

In the days after the tornado, the National Weather Service confirmed two tornados touched down in St. John the Baptist Parish, one of them causing significant damage along a 4.5 mile long and 200-yard wide path that traveled on a west-to-east diagonal path from New Wine Christian Fellowship on Airline Highway to near the junction of I-10 and I-55.

It reached its peak near the Indigo Lakes Subdivision with winds of 130 to 135 mph before crossing to the Frenier area and dissipating.

— Staff writers Raquel Derganz Baker and Lori Lyons contributed to this report.