Faithful Step Up in Wake of Tornado Devastation

by Walter Johnson

On April 25, the city of Ruston found itself reeling from an EF3 tornado that blew into the area in the early hours of Thursday morning. The vicious storm was part of a severe weather system ultimately responsible for serious storms and tornado patterns all the way from east Texas into northwest Louisiana. National Weather Service warnings were issued in St. Augustine, TX around 11:00 p.m. and continued until 3:00 a.m., as the storm moved into the area. The severe weather traveled up through Lincoln, Bienville and Red River parishes, ultimately making its way past Pleasant Hill and into the northeast corner of the state. Although much of the damage occurred in Ruston around Tech Drive and the Cypress Springs community just south of I-20, there was widespread damage throughout the city.

The National Weather Service confirmed this tornado was considered at least an EF3, with produced winds as high as 165 mph. Of the surveyed damage, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards stated: “the damage is extensive and catastrophic.” Sadly, Kendra Butler, 35, and her son Remington, 14, lost their lives when a tree crashed into their home.

Ruston will be recovering from this event for months to come. In times like these, people fall back upon their family, their community, their faith and their fellow church members in order to make sense of such a disaster.

Several parishioners of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Ruston lived through the experience, using their talents, resources and compassion to lend a helping hand to those the tornado left behind. Paul Jackson, who works as an Associate Professor of Plant Science at Louisiana Tech University, remembers how the day of the storm began. The tornado touched down about one mile south of his home in north Ruston. Paul didn’t even realize the storm was occurring until it was almost on top of the city. Paul witnessed the escalating chaos and was prevented from making an attempt to go anywhere in Ruston on the day of the storm. Downed and stripped trees and debris lay everywhere, blocking entry from entire streets and neighborhoods. Portions of a large tree had blown down onto the grounds of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish near the school building.

Luckily, Paul was able to use his chainsaw to start the process of splitting apart and removing the tree, clearing a pathway around the St. Thomas buildings. As he moved to other damaged sites, he attempted to check-in with a female colleague, but ultimately could not since city streets had become blocked off. Paul’s own home thankfully suffered no damages, but the post-storm-littered landscape of this formerly quiet college town won’t be soon forgotten.

As the week wore on, Paul continued to provide local support to various homeowners, cutting and removing everything from equipment to uprooted trees from local neighborhoods affected by the winds. Paul worked alongside another St. Thomas Aquinas member, Joshua Adams, an Associate Professor of Forestry at Louisiana Tech – as they helped various neighbors clear out material in or around their homes. Paul answered the call when some older sight-impaired St. Thomas Aquinas parishioners needed assistance in dealing with their own home damages from the high winds.

According to Paul, St. Thomas Aquinas Parish served up huge portions of fresh jambalaya to displaced community members on Wednesday, May 1, free of charge. This tornado experience and the cleanup in the midst of the aftermath shed some spiritual light on this whole experience for Paul. It strengthened his Catholic faith, as he witnessed other members of the community coming together to help – regardless of faith or station. Paul had never been in the midst of such a disaster before, save for years ago working with the government during the aftermath of the 2003 Columbia shuttle tragedy over East Texas and Northwest Louisiana. As Paul surveyed the damaged neighborhoods, he could only ask one thing: “What do we need to do – right now?”

Joshua Adams experienced what the aftermath of a tornado is like, as well. At 2:00 a.m. on the morning of April 25, Joshua was yanked from sleep by the shrill pitch of his phone’s Weather Alert. Minutes after the message, his friend (with a background in meteorology) was texting Joshua with urgent instructions to “Go and hide!” in his home’s hallway with his young child. Thankfully Joshua’s family home was spared any major damage, but Joshua distinctly recalls the terrible sounds of the tornado as it ripped its way across Ruston’s skies that early morning.

Joshua started working immediately during the night and into the dawn, helping other neighbors even as the local roadways started to be blocked off by city authorities. He remembers walking around the empty, debris-ridden streets, commenting that it “felt surreal,” looking more like a scene from a zombie movie rather than his own hometown.

As a Forestry professor, Joshua collected his chainsaws and started moving from house to house down Ruston’s Robinette Drive, not far away from his daily forestry office on Tech’s South campus, cutting up trees and clearing debris where he found it. The University Hills neighborhood in Ruston was the hardest-hit from the storm. Days after the tornado, Joshua and Paul moved throughout their neighborhoods, helping to cut and clear downed trees and limbs too big or heavy to remove alone.

Despite the damage, Joshua described the scene as “heartwarming” as he witnessed people helping each other after such a drastic event.

On day three, Joshua visited with St. Thomas Aquinas parishioners who manage the Center for the Blind in Ruston. The sight-impaired couples’ home had an entire wall ripped away from a nearby falling tree during the storm. With Joshua’s assistance the couple was able to relocate to the Blind Center’s apartment complex.


Recounting his post-tornado experience, Joshua never anticipated how much room is required to stack up all of the excess wood cleared away by the citywide post-storm clearing efforts. And even though Joshua experienced a tornado so fierce that it spattered wall insulation from one house onto another, across the street he saw the working of his faith in the people and teams around him, summing up that this was “good people, doing good work – all over.”

Both Paul Jackson and Joshua Adams are active members of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Ruston, LA.

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