Recovery Stalls After Fast Start Following Deadly Tornado

When a deadly tornado ripped through Ruston and Louisiana Tech University in the early morning darkness of April 25, hundreds of volunteers fanned out for rescues and cleanup.

Everyone from NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone and energy magnate James Davison were pitching in before daylight and for days and weeks afterward.

The city dipped into its reserves to bring in outside crews to restore electricity in four days rather than the predicted two weeks. Streets in the city and on campus were cleared quickly. Five miles of the city’s fiber network was replaced.

But five months later the pace has stalled as the city and Tech wait for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to complete its work and deliver the public assistance triggered when President Trump declared a disaster that will reimburse the city 75% of the $6 million it expended so far.

FEMA denied a request for private assistance.

“We started out really fast,” Ruston Mayor Ronny Walker said. “But it’s now a lot slower than we want it to go. Would I like it to move faster? Absolutely.”

“FEMA and the state have been incredibly helpful, but it’s a long, arduous process,” said Tech President Les Guice, whose baseball, softball and soccer teams won’t be able to play on campus next spring after those facilities were destroyed.

Houses in University Hills subdivision — “This was the epicenter,” Walker said of the residential damage — remain a wreck with homes covered with tarps or empty slabs and construction dumpsters at every turn.

“Some people may not come back; they may not have the means or adequate insurance,” said Walker, whose administration had to begin the awkward task of deciding when to move forward on condemnation of properties to preserve the subdivisions and streets hit hardest.

Walker has also grown impatient with private contractors who haven’t removed tree debris they’ve piled up on private property. “We can’t remove that,” he said.

Demolition hasn’t started on Tech’s baseball stadium as the university waits on final approval to move forward.

It’s the most visible reminder of the tornado, the mangled stadium occupying a prominent spot on Tech Drive.

And the human tragedy created by the EF-3 twister that tore through Ruston and Union Parish can never be repaired.

Kendra Butler, 35, who was earning her master’s degree at Grambling State University, and her son Remington Butler, 14, a Ruston High School freshman, were killed when a tree crashed through their home in Ruston.

But there are signs of progress.

Most of the business owners at a shopping center on the Interstate 20 frontage road off of Ruston’s middle I-20 exit are back in commerce with final touches being put on some store and hotel fronts like the Courtyard by Marriott.

Contracts have been let to repair Tech’s residential housing facilities that were heavily damaged across the street from the baseball stadium as well as at Tech’s Lambright Center.

“We’re Ruston strong,” Walker said. “We will press forward. It’s just going to take longer than anyone would have wanted.”

About the photo: This house and others in Ruston’s University Hills subdivision that were heavily damaged by the Sept. 25, 2019 tornado, will soon be put up for auction. (Greg Hilburn/The News-Star via AP)