KENNER, La. – Tornadoes and severe weather ripped through the Gulf Coast on Tuesday, mangling trailers at an RV park, ripping off roofs from buildings and killing at least three people in Louisiana and Mississippi, authorities said.
One of the most hard-hit areas appeared to be a recreational vehicle park in the town of Convent, in southern Louisiana. Two people were killed there, said St. James Parish Sheriff Willy Martin, speaking on local television. Authorities were still looking for people possibly trapped under the debris, Martin said.
Thirty-one people were taken to area hospitals, and seven of them were in critical condition, he said.
“We never had anything like this; we never had this many people injured in one event, and so much destruction in one event,” Martin told WVUE news. “We won’t stop searching until we’re satisfied we’ve searched every pile.”
Martin said three people were still believed to be missing but efforts to account for them were hampered because authorities didn’t know how many people were at the park when the storm hit or how many people were taken to hospitals in private vehicles.
Jerome Picou, who lives near the park, said just before the tornado hit that it was raining and the skies grew dark. Then he heard what sounded like a freight train.
“The wind was blowing a little bit, but then it stopped. Then all of a sudden all kinds of wind and rain started. It was so bad, I had to go inside the house or I would have been blown away with it,” Picou said.
In Mississippi, officials are still sorting through reports of damage to some buildings, but Vann Byrd of the Lamar County Emergency Management Agency said one person died in a mobile home west of Purvis. Lamar County Coroner Cody Creel said that Dale Purvis, 73, died of blunt-force trauma.
The reported tornadoes are part of a line of severe weather and storms that ripped through the region.
At least seven tornadoes hit southeast Louisiana and southwest Mississippi, said Ken Graham, the meteorologist in charge for the National Weather Service’s southeast Louisiana office.
That number includes the one in Convent and near Purvis, Mississippi, he said. Teams will be sent out in the morning to document the damage and rate the tornadoes, he said.
The harsh weather even affected the National Weather Service, Graham said. At one point the staff in the Slidell office took shelter because a tornado was nearby, and lightning took out the office’s radar, forcing them to use backups, he said.
“We felt the shockwave go through the building,” Graham said.
Reported tornadoes and severe weather caused damage in other parts of both states.
A reported tornado caused some damage but no injuries near New Orleans’ main airport, while high winds ripped off roofs and downed trees around the greater New Orleans area. Other suspected tornadoes were reported north of Lake Pontchartrain and west of the city in St. Charles and Ascension parishes and in Prairieville, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, heavy damage was reported to some buildings, including a fitness gym.
In Mississippi, at least nine homes across Pearl River County were reported to be so heavily damaged as to be uninhabitable, said Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Director Lee Smithson. The damage was widespread, so it was unclear whether it was a tornado or severe weather. A barn was destroyed near Avera in Greene County, said National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Miller in what forecasters believe was a tornado.
Wind damage was also reported in Yazoo, Forrest, Jones and Carroll counties.
In Florida, the National Weather Service said a tornado hit Pensacola, Florida. Meteorologist Steve Miller said the service has had many reports of property damage and people injured in storms Tuesday night.
Ronald Myers lives across the street from New Mount Bethel Baptist Church in Kenner, Louisiana, just outside of New Orleans. He recalled the sky darkening and high winds — he believes it was a tornado. He and his wife came outside when they heard the church’s alarm go off. High winds sheared the brick and mortar from the rear wall of the church.
“My wife came over to turn the alarm off and she came back home and said, ‘Baby, the wall behind the church has done fell down,”’ said Myers. He said he struggled to keep his footing in the wind, and it nearly knocked his wife down.
Governors in both Louisiana and Mississippi declared states of emergency.
Speaking at the RV park in Convent, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards described the scene as a “jumbled mess.”
“We all need to be prayerful and mindful and take those tornado warnings when we see them very seriously,” Edwards said.
Schools across south Louisiana and Mississippi canceled classes ahead of the storm, sending tens of thousands of students home early to avoid having buses on the road when severe storms arrived.
The storms began as a line of fierce thunderstorms moved across Texas Monday night, leaving thousands without power and windows broken from hail, but no one was injured.
In Alabama and Georgia, forecasters issued flash flood watches ahead of the storm system, which was expected to drop 1 to 2 inches of rain. The warnings were expected to be in effect through Wednesday afternoon.
Associated Press writers Janet McConnaughey and Bill Fuller in New Orleans and Max Becherer in Convent, Louisiana, contributed to this report.