Image: Storm damage in Rayne, La.
P.C. Piazza  /  Lafayette Daily Advertiser
Residents look at damage from a suspected tornado that killed one person and injured at least 12 in Rayne, La., on Saturday.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 3/6/2011 10:09:32 AM ET 2011-03-06T15:09:32

A tornado slammed a southwestern Louisiana town Saturday, killing a young mother who was sheltering her child and injuring 11 other people. More than 100 homes and businesses were damaged, many of them destroyed, authorities said, and about 1,500 people were evacuated because of natural gas leaks.

Maxine Trahan, a spokeswoman for the Acadia Parish Sheriff's Office, said 21-year-old Jalisa Granger was killed when a tree fell on her house.

"She sheltered the child to protect her from the storm and a tree fell on the house and it killed the mother but the child was OK," Trahan said, adding that a relative who lived nearby found them.

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Authorities say the tornado, which brought winds reaching 135 mph (217 kph),  had sprung from a vast storm system kicking up abundant moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. That storm system was poised to spread rain Sunday up the Carolinas and into the Northeast as forecasters warned of the threat of heavy rains in the Southeast and a mix of rain and snow farther north.

Debris was littered throughout Rayne, a town of about 8,500 people some 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baton Rouge. A line of violent thunderstorms moved through the area and left behind a swath of damage about a quarter of a mile (400 meters) wide to three miles (4.8 kilometers) long.

In Rayne, sheet metal roofing clung to trees, chunks of homes were ripped and tossed about, and downed tree limbs smashed cars. A U.S. Postal Service truck was flipped to its side.

Trahan said the natural gas leaks, which were later fixed, delayed authorities trying to count how many homes and businesses were damaged. About 1,500 people were ordered out of the area for the night, she said, because officials feared more gas leaks could occur.

A temporary shelter was set up at a fire station — about two dozen people were there during the night. A curfew was imposed for the storm-damaged area until early Sunday, which was in part meant to keep looters away.

The system that hit Rayne quickly moved east and drenched New Orleans, where several Mardi Gras parades either were delayed, canceled or started earlier because of the severe weather.

"There are houses off their foundations," said State Police Trooper Stephen Hammons. "There are houses that have been destroyed."

The National Weather Service sent a team to investigate and confirmed a tornado had struck the area.

The tornado's maximum estimated wind speed was 135 mph and it was classified EF2 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, a NWS forecaster said late Saturday.

In Crowley, three members of the Iota High School baseball team received minor injuries and needed stitches after a window at the Waffle House was busted out while they were inside eating breakfast, police told NBC News.

The twister touched down near the Waffle House and Sunbelt Motors, dislodging some air conditioning units at Waffle House and destroying a storage shed at Sunbelt Motors, officials told NBC News. The Geaux Cup, next door to Sunbelt Motors, also had minor damage.

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Story: Corn Belt gets ready for major spring flooding

The Weather Channel also reported that the eastern third of the U.S. would likely see precipitation as a major storm strengthened as it moved from the Ohio Valley into the Northeast.

It has drawn up a map showing the areas most at risk from tornadoes in March.

The Associated Press and The Weather Channel contributed to this report.

Explainer: Spring flood forecast

  • NOAA

    "A large swath of the North Central United States is at risk of moderate to major flooding this spring," the National Weather Service said in its latest forecast on Feb. 24. Below are the scenarios by region.

  • North Central U.S.: above average

    Image: Ice backs up on Mississippi River
    Emily M Rasinski  /  St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP
    Ice backs up on the Mississippi River around the Clark Bridge in Alton, Ill., north of St. Louis, on Jan. 24.

    Heavy late summer and autumn precipitation (twice the normal amount since October in parts of North Dakota and Minnesota) have left soils saturated and streams running high before the winter freeze-up. NWS models show this year’s snowpack contains a water content ranked among the highest of the last 60 years.

    The combination put a large portion of the North Central United States at risk of moderate to major flooding this spring, extending from northeastern Montana through western Wisconsin and along the Mississippi River south to St. Louis.

    Information provided by NOAA on February 17, 2011, indicated Fargo, N.D., has a near 95 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 30 feet. At a stage of 30 feet, portions of downtown Fargo begin flooding and temporary dike construction is necessary. Approximately a 20 percent chance exists of reaching or exceeding the 40.8 foot record set in 2009. Grand Forks, N.D., has about a 95 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 46 feet. There is approximately a 40 percent chance of Devils Lake, N.D., exceeding 1,455 feet, which could partially inundate portions of the town of Minnewauken, including critical infrastructure and roads across the lake, emergency service routes and possibly a small section of the Amtrak train line.

    There is potential for moderate to major flooding on the Milk River and its tributaries in northeastern Montana. The Milk River near Glasgow Montana has about a 90 percent chance of exceeding the major flood stage of 27 feet. Some minor ice jam flooding is already occurring in Montana; additional flooding resulting from ice jams is likely throughout the late winter and early spring.

    The James River at Huron, S.D., has about a 90 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 15 feet and a 30 percent chance of exceeding the record 21.2 foot level set in 1997. The Big Sioux River at Brookings, S.D., has a greater than 95 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 12 feet and about a 30 percent chance of exceeding the 14.77-foot record set in 1969.

    The Mississippi River is likely to see major flooding from its headwaters near St. Paul, Minnesota, downstream to St. Louis. St. Paul, MN., has about a 95 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 17 feet, where secondary flood walls are deployed to protect the St. Paul Airport. Further downstream, the risk of major flooding on the Mississippi (Iowa, Illinois and Missouri borders) will persist into the spring. Much of that region’s snowpack typically accumulates later in the winter. The quantity of spring rains and late-season snow will determine the magnitude of flooding in the Middle Mississippi Valley.

  • Northeast: above average

    Image: Frozen Hudson River
    Mike Groll  /  AP
    The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse is frozen in ice on the Hudson River and in front of the Catskill Mountains in Hudson, N.Y., on Jan. 14.

    There is a small area of above average flood risk in portions of the Northeast, primarily across Southern New England and the Catskills Mountains in N.Y. state. As a result of October and November rain storms, these regions had above normal soil moisture levels prior to the winter freeze, followed by above average snowfall, and river icing in many locations.

    If snowpack and river icing conditions were to persist beyond mid-March, this area could have an elevated risk of spring flooding during the melt period, especially if heavy rains fall during the melt.

  • Southern plains: below average

    Image: Dry area of Texas
    Eric Gay  /  AP
    An irrigation system is used to bring water to a dry field near Hondo, Texas on Dec. 15.

    Fall and winter precipitation over Texas and New Mexico was significantly below average, ranging from 20 to 75 percent of normal from October 2010 to mid-February 2011. Portions of the Pecos River and the Rio Grande basins received as little as 10 percent of normal rainfall. Soil Moisture Analysis by the Climate Prediction Center show drier than normal soils from the surface to as deep as 2 meters.

    This deficit will minimize the amount of water that can be converted to river flows during any rainstorm. Current stream flow conditions as measured by the US Geological Survey range from near average too much below average for stations across this region.

  • Mid-Atlantic, Southeast: below average

    Image: Dry Georgia farm
    David Goldman  /  AP
    Farmer Aries Haygood shows how dry the top layer of soil is on his freshly planted onion farm in Lyons, Ga., on Dec. 10.

    Fall and winter precipitation over the Mid Atlantic and Southeast ranged from 50 to 75 percent of average for this period. Isolated portions of South and North Carolina only received between 25 and 50 percent of normal precipitation. Therefore, soil moisture is well below normal across most of the Southeastern US and the Mid-Atlantic.

    Deficits in the precipitation and soil moisture water contents translate into below average stream flow conditions for much of the region and a below average flood risk for the spring.

  • West: no forecast yet

    Image: Snow in Sierras
    Scott Sady  /  AP
    A utility worker restores service to homes around Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Dec. 20 after a storm that dumped up to 10 feet of snow in places.

    Late February is too early to determine spring flooding potential across the Western U.S. Much of the snowfall which determines spring runoff in the mountain west accumulates during the remainder of the winter and spring.

    Snowpack remains above and much above average in many regions. However, extreme high temperature can lead to elevated melt rates at any time during spring. There is still ample time left in the accumulation period for the spring flood potential to change.

Video: La. mom dies sheltering child during tornado

  1. Transcript of: La. mom dies sheltering child during tornado

    LESTER HOLT, co-host: But we want to begin, though, with the severe weather that spawned a deadly tornado in the small town of Rayne , Louisiana . That's where The Weather Channel 's Eric Fisher is this morning for us. Eric , good morning.

    ERIC FISHER reporting: Good morning, Lester . You know, usually it's a time for celebration here in Louisiana , Mardi Gras weekend, that makes what happened here yesterday all the more tragic. An EF2 tornado, winds 110 to 125 miles per hour, and I can show you what winds of that speed can actually do. In this neighborhood here in Rayne , we had 60 homes that were destroyed by the strong winds . You can see the one off to the side here. The top half just sheered off by that tornado that rolled through town, debris all across the road. We can actually look down the street here. The winds taking some of the homes -- some of the debris, hanging it up into the trees, taking some limbs down. And even some very large trees that have been here for a number of years just snapped like nothing. Now we did have 12 injuries reported when these winds rolled through just before 10 AM on Saturday. We also had a fatality, and this is the story

    that'll really just break your heart: a mother protecting her child. When the winds ramped up, she was protected -- instinctively protecting her child from the winds and a tree came through their house and killed her, 21-year-old mother. Just a terrible story here on Mardi Gras weekend. Right now I want to bring in the mayor of Rayne , Mayor Jim Petitjean , who is joining us this morning to talk a little bit about the situation. Mayor, thank you for joining us this morning. Have you seen anything like this in Rayne before?

    Mayor JIM PETITJEAN: No, I haven't. You know, we've experiences tornado -- I mean, hurricanes before that have been pretty bad, but never the structural damage that we've had associated with this storm.

    FISHER: What was it like here in town yesterday morning?

    Mayor PETITJEAN: It was total chaos, to be honest with you. And first of all, you want to make sure that everybody's accounted for and safe; and then once that was done, then you start doing the restoration of the community.

    FISHER: All right. Are you hopeful that we can get people back into their homes, or at least some of these homes here, over the next couple of day?

    Mayor PETITJEAN: Absolutely. Today we're going to see a lot of progress with our electrical utilities, which is the main reason why we've kind of evacuated this area. We had some gas leaks that were causing us issues yesterday, too. All of that's under control. And, you know, now we'll do the restoration of the utilities and start sending people back in.

    FISHER: All right. Mayor Petitjean , thanks for joining us this morning for the update.

    Mayor PETITJEAN: Thank you.

    FISHER: We do appreciate it. This storm system is headed off toward the east. Severe weather possible today from the Carolinas down towards Florida . Lester , back to you.

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