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Tornado slams La. town, downed tree kills mother

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March 5, 2011 11:58 PM EST | AP

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RAYNE, La. — A tornado slammed a southwestern Louisiana town Saturday, killing a young mother who was sheltering her child and injuring 11 other people. More than 100 homes were damaged, many of them destroyed, authorities said, and about 1,500 people were evacuated because of natural gas leaks.

Maxine Trahan, a spokeswoman for the Acadia Parish Sheriff's Office, said 21-year-old Jalisa Granger was killed when a tree fell on her house.

"She sheltered the child to protect her from the storm and a tree fell on the house and it killed the mother but the child was OK," Trahan said, adding that a relative who lived nearby found them.

Debris was littered throughout Rayne, a town of about 8,500 people, after a line of violent thunderstorms moved through the area and left behind a swath of damage about a quarter of a mile wide to three miles long.

Pieces of homes were strewn about the tops of trees, and power lines were down. A U.S. Postal Service truck was flipped to its side.

"It's a mess back there – a lot of damage," Trahan said. The community is near Route 10 and about 70 miles west of Baton Rouge.

Trahan said the natural gas leaks, which were later fixed, delayed authorities trying to count how many homes and businesses were damaged. About 1,500 people were ordered out of the area for the night, she said, because officials feared more gas leaks could occur. A temporary shelter was set up at a fire station – about two dozen displaced persons were there Saturday night – and officials were working to find other shelters. A curfew was imposed for the storm-damaged area and will remain in effect until at least 6 a.m.

"There are houses off their foundations," said State Police Trooper Stephen Hammons. "There are houses that have been destroyed."

The National Weather Service sent a team to investigate and confirmed a tornado had struck the area.

The system that hit Rayne quickly moved east and drenched New Orleans, where several Mardi Gras parades either were delayed, started earlier or canceled because of the severe weather.

As the storm system moved east, it weakened, and at 11 p.m. Eastern time, tornado watches expired for south-central and southwest Alabama and northwest Florida, including Destin and Panama City.

Showers and thunderstorms were expected to move through the area, contributing to rough waters and dense fog in the early-morning hours.

"The thunderstorms are moving into increasingly stable air and they're getting a little weaker as they move east, particularly the ones above land," NWS forecaster Mark Wool said Saturday evening.

Wool said the severe weather was caused by strong winds ahead of a cold front.