- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2011

RAYNE, La. (AP) — Officials worked Sunday to get people back into their homes a day after a tornado ripped through this southwestern Louisiana town, killing a mother shielding her child from the fierce winds and leaving 12 hurt.

The house where Jalisa Granger, 21, died was completely crushed by part of an oak tree. She, her toddler son and her mother all had to be pulled from the wreckage by neighbors and relatives on Saturday, said Maxine Trahan, a spokeswoman for the Acadia Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Some 1,500 people were unable to return to their homes in this community about 70 miles west of Baton Rouge, said Rayne Police Chief Carroll Stelly. About 150 homes were damaged or destroyed as winds topped out at 135 mph, leaving at least 12 with injuries that were not life-threatening. Others could not return to their homes because workers were still surveying damage and trying to get utilities running again.

Pauline Patton, 64, and her husband, Howard, were at their apartment when she looked out the window and saw a funnel cloud bearing down on them. Suddenly, the power went out. Rainwater poured through the ceiling. Everything went black. It was like a bomb exploding as it passed over them, she said.

“It just happened so fast,” she said. “You couldn’t hardly see nothing. Everything was dark.”

The couple were having lunch Sunday at the fire station-turned-shelter, courtesy of the Red Cross. They weren’t sure when — or if — they’ll be able to move back into the apartment. Still, Mrs. Patton kept her spirits high.

“I can’t complain,” she said. “They’ve been good to us.”

The area hit hardest was composed of mostly low- to moderate-income homes.

“My heart goes out to the residents because a lot of them don’t have any insurance,” Ms. Trahan said. “So where do they begin?”

On Sunday, a cat stretched on top of the demolished home where Ms. Granger had been, sunning itself. Elsewhere, people’s mud-soaked belongings were strewn about the streets. Emergency workers have been spray-painting symbols on homes that they had checked. Splintered wood, glass shards and metal littered yards, while aluminum siding was wrapped around trees.

The only sound was the occasional hum of a chainsaw in the distance, being used to cut downed tree limbs from power lines.

Meanwhile, the police chief asked people to be patient while officials worked to make sure it was safe for residents to come back to their homes or retrieve belongings. Chief Stelly said officials had not decided when to let people back in to the swath of town that had been closed off.

Of the 1,500 displaced, only about two-dozen stayed in a shelter set up at a local fire station. Among them were Diane Wheeler, 45, and her husband, Anthony Rochony. They didn’t hear the tornado before the it slammed into their home, ripping off the roof and tossing their belongings all over the house.

Ms. Wheeler said she flipped over a couch and tried to hide beneath it while her husband lay nearby on the floor. His arm was cut by a shard of flying glass, though she emerged unscathed after they endured what she said seemed like about an hour of high winds and rain.

“I was scared, very scared,” she said.

For now, their home appears to be a total loss, she said. They don’t know where they will live and will have to either stay at the shelter or find family elsewhere to stay with.

“It hurts my feelings, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” Ms. Wheeler said.

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