Image: A postal truck lies on its side
P.C. Piazza  /  AP
A U.S. Postal truck lies on its side in the yard of a home in Rayne, La., after a suspected tornado hit the area injuring at least nine people, leveling homes and causing natural gas leaks that prompted evacuations on Saturday.
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updated 3/6/2011 3:54:31 PM ET 2011-03-06T20:54:31

As the storm roared over Pauline Patton's apartment, she peered out the window and saw something she wasn't ready for: A funnel cloud. Suddenly, the power went out. Rainwater poured through the ceiling. And as everything went black, she heard what sounded like a bomb exploding overhead.

Still, residents said the tornado that killed a woman the day before and displaced hundreds could have been much worse. Many have turned their attention to taking care of pets and retrieving essentials left behind while evacuating.

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Patton, 64, and her husband, Howard, were having lunch Sunday at a fire station-turned-shelter, courtesy of the Red Cross. They weren't sure when — or if — they'd be able to return to their apartment. About two dozen people were also at the shelter, with nowhere else to go.

"It just happened so fast," she said. "You couldn't hardly see nothing. Everything was dark."

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 had been 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.

On Sunday, a cat curled in the sun on top of the demolished home where 21-year-old Jalisa Granger was killed. Granger had been protecting her toddler son when part of an oak tree crashed onto the home. Her mother also was inside, and relatives and neighbors had to pull them from the wreckage, said Maxine Trahan, a spokeswoman for the Acadia Parish Sheriff's Office.

Elsewhere, mud-soaked belongings were strewn about the yards. Emergency workers spray-painted symbols on homes that they had checked. Splintered wood, glass shards and metal littered yards, while aluminum siding was wrapped around trees. Chainsaws hummed in the distance as crews cut downed tree limbs from power lines.

Gov. Bobby Jindal had arrived to meet with officials and survey the damage.

Marla Andrew, 50, was waiting at the police department hoping someone could get her back to her home so she could check on her terrier Keosha, who had gone a full day without food and water. Andrew had been giving her elderly mother a bath when the storm hit.

"I was so worried about getting my mom out of there I completely forgot about the dog," said Andrew, whose home was not significantly damaged but was located in the evacuation area.

In that same waiting room, 50-year-old Reginald Mouton was hoping he could at least retrieve an essential piece of medical equipment and avoid a second sleepless night. Mouton uses a machine to help control his sleep apnea, a disorder that causes pauses in breathing while people sleep.

Police had given him about 15 to 20 minutes to pack a bag when his neighborhood was evacuated, and he forgot the device. Nonetheless, he was grateful his home did not have serious damage.

"I'm very fortunate. We as a community are very fortunate," he said. "It could have been a lot worse."

The hardest hit-area in Rayne — which bills itself as the Frog Capital of the World because of its annual frog festival — is composed mostly of low- to moderate-income homes.

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

Story: La. mom dies sheltering child from tornado-felled tree

Among those without insurance were Diane Wheeler, 45, and her husband, Anthony Rochony. They were staying at the Red Cross shelter, and they didn't know where they would be able to live now. Wheeler said they'll either have to stay at the shelter or with out-of-town relatives.

"It hurts my feelings, but there's nothing I can do about it," Wheeler said.

The couple didn't hear the tornado it slammed into their home, ripping off the roof and tossing their belongings all over the house.

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.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Brutal winter storm hits East Coast

  1. Closed captioning of: Brutal winter storm hits East Coast

    >>> back in this country, we are in the grips of another brutal winter storm from florida up to maine, this weather maker is bringing heavy rains, flooding an blizzard conditions in some place. it also turned dead any louisiana , where a tornado took the life of a young mother. nbc's rehema ellis reports.

    >> reporter: it was a terrible storm. this dramatic video captured on a security camera . four tornadoes with winds gusting up to 135 miles per hour ripped through several communities along route 10 in southwestern louisiana on saturday. 15 a 00 people were forced to evacuate their homes. the area hardest hit is rayne, 50 miles west of baton rouge , and home to about 8500 people. [ sirens ]

    >> reporter: 12 people were injured. 21-year-old jalissa granger was killed. authorities say they filed while sheltering her 1-year-old daughter, as fierce winds brought down the tree on top of their home.

    >> i think it was total chaos, to be honest with you.

    >> reporter: louisiana 's governor declared a state of emergency and today, surveyed the damage.

    >> literally what was a home before, now just pieces of wood destroyed on that property. you see debris scattered across several lots so this storm did a lot of damage in a very short period of time.

    >> reporter: the weather channel 's eric fisher is in rayne.

    >> in all, 60 homes were completely destroyed by this ef-2 tornado. roofs off the top. some instances, owners' cars sent down the street.

    >> reporter: fierce weather system that pounded louisiana moved on and turned into heavy rain n shelby county , indiana, outside of indianapolis, seven people were rescued from their house after it was flooded. in columbus, ohio, icy roads made for treacherous driving, with reports of 60 traffic accidents in just two and a half hours today. in buffalo, new york, roads were shut down because of heavy snow. all this with just two weeks before the official start of spring. rehema ellis, nbc news, new york.

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