By REBECCA SANTANA and BEN NADLER Associated Press
A tornado killed two people as it tore through the northern Louisiana city of Ruston early Thursday, sending trees into houses, ripping roofs off buildings and causing a local public university to cancel classes, officials said.
“Devastation is the way it looks,” said Ruston Mayor Ronny Walker after flying over the city in a helicopter to assess the damage. “The number of houses with trees completely through them was incredible.”
The tornado was part of a thunderstorm that left a trail of damage from eastern Texas into northern Louisiana but Ruston — a city of about 24,000 people — appeared to get the worst of it.
A mother and son were killed when a tree fell on their home in Ruston overnight, officials said. During a news conference, Gov. John Bel Edwards identified the victims as Kendra Butler, 35, and Remington Butler, 14, who was a high school freshman.
Edwards declared a state of emergency as he toured the region and met with officials. Edwards, who’s led the state through multiple natural disasters, said the damage he saw Thursday was remarkable in the way it spared and devastated areas so close together.
“You see one side of the street seems perfectly normal and everything on the other side of the street severely damaged,” he said.
Walker said that immediately after the tornado swept through Ruston, about three-quarters of the area was without power. Restoration was ongoing, but he said by the end of the day they expect about 25% to 30% of the town will be without power.
The tornado was part of a severe weather system that pounded Texas with rain Wednesday, killing a woman and two children caught in a flash flood, before moving into Mississippi Thursday.
National Weather Service hydrologist C. S. Ross said the tornado hit Ruston at 1:50 a.m. It was part of a line of “continuous damage” that stretched about 150 miles (241 kilometers) from Texas into Louisiana, he said. Officials would be using satellite data to determine whether it was a single tornado that ripped through the entire area, although Ross said that does not appear likely.
The National Weather Service said on Twitter that the tornado that hit Ruston was an EF3, meaning it had winds of at least 136 mph (219 kph). They said an EF1 tornado hit near Mooringsport, Louisiana, while an EF2 tornado hit near San Augustine, Texas.
At Louisiana Tech University, classes were canceled Thursday and Friday, the university said. The university said no students were reported injured, but trees and power lines were down in several places on campus. They also warned worried parents trying to reach their children that it might be hard to reach students because of the high volume of calls.
The university’s sports facilities got hit the hardest, officials said.
“Our softball and our soccer facilities are completely demolished. Our baseball facility is severely damaged,” said Malcolm Butler, the university’s associate athletics director. “We’re still assessing how bad it is. All three of those facilities will probably have to be rebuilt to some extent if not totally.”
A large section of the concrete covering that protects the baseball grandstands was ripped off and pieces found lying in the main street that cuts through campus, Butler said.
The university’s president, Les Guice, asked people to stay off the roads unless necessary.
“We are still assessing damage to campus due to the tornado. Power lines are down and a lot of debris is as well creating safety hazards,” he said on Twitter. He said the core academic buildings were in “good shape” although trees were down around campus.
The four-year university has about 12,000 students, and many people in the town of Ruston work at the university.
The university planned to reopen Monday, said spokeswoman Tonya Oaks Smith.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards traveled to Ruston to assess the damage; he said on Twitter that state police and the Louisiana National Guard were assisting local responders.
Elsewhere in Louisiana, sheriff’s departments and emergency offices in Lincoln, Union and Morehouse parishes reported blocked roads and downed power lines.
Gregg Gossler, director of the Union Parish emergency preparedness office, said about 35 homes and businesses were damaged and numerous power lines were down.
He said the parish’s poultry operations appeared to be hard hit. As many as 16 chicken houses, each with as many as 20,000 birds, were reported damaged, he said.
Santana reported from New Orleans and Nadler from Atlanta. Associated Press reporter Kevin McGill contributed to this report.