Tornado Hits Louisiana Chemical Plant, Shipyard, Houses

April 26, 2010

A tornado slammed into a chemical plant and a shipyard at the Tallulah Port in Louisiana and destroyed 12 houses April 24, seriously damaging others.

Gov. Bobby Jindal declared an emergency in Madison Parish and said he would meet with Sheriff Larry Cox and other officials and see the damage at the Northrop-Grumman Corp. shipyard, Complex Chemical Co. and the East Willow Bayou community.

“I will be on the ground in Madison Parish to meet with emergency first responders and tour the damage,” he said.

Deputies had to clear trees from several yards in the rural area so residents could get out but nobody was seriously hurt, though 12 people suffered broken bones, cuts and scrapes, Sheriff’s Maj. Neil Horath said.

“We ain’t never had nothing this big,” he said.

Complex Chemical and Northrop-Grumman, both inside the Mississippi River levee, were seriously damaged but four businesses outside the levees had minor damage such as broken windows, Port Director Clyde Thompson said.

He said damages couldn’t be fully assessed at either company. “It really was tough getting in there, because so many electrical lines were down, sparks popping all over,” he said.

The twister destroyed nearly all the warehouses and office buildings at Complex Chemical, which makes brake fluids, antifreeze and other “functional fluids” used in automotive and paving businesses, owner Jerry Melton said.

“Most of the storage tanks appear to be intact, and most of the processing vessels appear intact, from what we can see,” he said.

Northrop-Grumman spokesman Bill Glenn said the Tallulah shipyard, which has about 100 employees, will be closed Monday to assess damage and begin cleaning debris. He did not describe the damage, other than to say it was in several parts of the shipyard and included downed power lines.

Melton, who has about 70 full-time employees, said all 12 workers on duty Saturday got out of the building, though three had broken bones. Rescue workers had to help at least one, Horath said.

Melton said he will rebuild, and his workers will be paid until he can reopen.

“We did have business interruption insurance. … Whether I had it or not, I would make sure they were cared for,” he said. “I’m 66 years old, I’ve done this for 37 years, and I owe them more than to just walk away from this thing.”

Melton said, “We had no fires, no gas leaks, and none of our chemicals left the property.”

Liquid nitrogen escaping from a broken pipe “was the only thing that even looked sensational,” he said. If someone had been next to the tank, he said, they could have suffered frostbite or had trouble breathing because nitrogen would have pushed away oxygen. But nobody was.

“Liquid nitrogen turns into a vapor and makes a rather exciting looking cloud. But it really doesn’t hurt anything, because most of the atmosphere is nitrogen to start with,” Melton said.

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