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Press Gallery column: Louisiana town will recover from tornado

By ERIC JENSEN
March 12, 2011 at 3 p.m.
Updated March 11, 2011 at 9:12 p.m.

This aerial photo provided by the Rayne Police Department shows damage from Saturday's tornado that killed one and injured several others in Rayne, La.

Reading Associated Press reports and seeing photos of the extensive damage done to the town of Rayne, La., from a tornado that touched down last weekend triggered a memory back to another Louisiana tornado.

On Saturday, Dec. 3, 1978, an F4 tornado struck Bossier City, La., just across the Red River from Shreveport. Several businesses, homes and a school received severe damage, but, surprisingly, there were only two deaths from the tornado. The Louisiana National Guard, of which I was then a member, was mobilized and convoyed to the disaster-stricken city on Monday morning. My platoon was put to work providing security detail to prevent looters from plundering empty homes and businesses. Other platoons in my engineer company helped clear away rubble using bulldozers and large trucks.

Walking amid the rubble of the Port Au Prince apartment complex, I was struck by the extensive damage. Upstairs apartments had roofs missing and, in some cases, walls blown out. Most residents were sleeping when the tornado struck without warning shortly before 2 a.m. I was told casualties would have been higher had people been up and moving around.

In both the Bossier City and Rayne tornadoes, the victims were young.

In Rayne, a 21-year-old mother died when part of an oak tree crashed onto her home as she tried to protect her 15-month-old son.

In the 1978 Bossier City tornado, two sisters, ages 13 and 8 were killed when the twister picked up a car and slammed it into the bedroom of their home as they slept.

The tornado injured 220 people and left 1,500 homeless.

The spirit of this damaged city was illustrated to me early one morning shortly before sunrise. A few members of my platoon and I were guarding a residential street corner in a quiet suburb. Seated in a folding chair near the curb, I was startled to see a car's headlights approach me. The vehicle stopped a few feet in front of me, a woman got out and handed me a cup of hot coffee.

"I saw you sitting there in the cold and thought you could use this," she said. Before I could thank her, the woman got back in her vehicle and drove away, presumably to work.

I was struck by this resident's thoughtfulness in the midst of this devastation.

During our four-day tour of duty in this Northwest Louisiana city, many residents approached us to say how glad they were to have us here to help. That made our jobs easier.

In the intervening years, Bossier City recovered. Visitors today are unable to see any sign of the death and destruction left in the wake of this long ago storm.

I feel the community of Rayne will also recover and thrive with the help of its Louisiana neighbors.

The Press Gallery is an occasional column in which Advocate staffers personalize the news. Eric Jensen is a copy editor. Contact him at 361-580-6551 or ejensen@vicad.com or comment on this column at www.victoriaadvocate.com.

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