Tiny Louisiana Community Rebuilds

Nov 26, 2002 12:22 PM EST

SAVOY, La. - Looking at the destruction to Jim Dillehay's property, people may wonder how he could still be thankful. The reason is standing right next to him: his 10-year-old son, Coty.

The boy was not hurt when a tornado that struck at 3 a.m. Oct. 29, brought the family's house down around him.

Jim Dillehay, his wife Judy and their daughter made it out safely, but Coty was stuck inside after an oak tree fell on the roof and trapped him in his bedroom.

"He was still in his bed," Dillehay said, "and the walls fell in on top of him."

Coty was trapped in the collapsed building for more than an hour until emergency workers were able to pull him loose.

"It seemed like five hours to me," Dillehay said.

But Coty came out without a scratch. Now that he has a week off from school because of Thanksgiving vacation, he's outside helping his father every day.

The family and many others in Savoy are still cleaning up. This tiny community dodged Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Lili earlier this fall, only to be struck by the Oct. 29 tornado.

The twister followed nearly a week of rain, drowning parts of Louisiana already saturated from hurricane season. The damage caused by all these storms is far from being cleaned up.

The twisters that touched down around Savoy killed two people in Chataignier, wiped out just-built Northwest High School and destroyed the property of residents like the Dillehays.

"It sounded like a train come through here, man," said Harry Vickanir, Dillehay's neighbor.

"Like a train without the whistle," added his Vickanir's wife, Cathy.

"It was just a lot of wind damage," Harry Vickanir said. "And lightning. It was lit up like it was daytime over here."

The Vickanirs made it through the storm unharmed but their new trailer home incurred damage to the windows, walls and roof, and was moved eight inches from where it originally stood. Most of the sheds and outbuildings in their yard were destroyed. But out of their many animals -- five pigs, 13 goats, and more chickens, geese, ducks and dogs than Vickanir cared to count -- only one, a chicken, was killed.

"That smokehouse was hanging in the trees," Vickanir said, pointing to the branches behind the trailer. "We was lucky. We're all still here. It could've been a lot worse."

A lot worse is exactly what happened at the Dillehay's just next door.

While almost all of Vickanir's losses were covered by insurance, Dillehay-who lost his home, a two-story barn, three vehicles, a pet Chihuahua, several chickens, and almost all of his possessions-will get back less than half of the $76,000 he estimates he lost to the storm.

His house was covered, he said, but that was about it. While he did have car insurance, he had only the most basic coverage, which did not apply to what happened Oct. 29.

Dillehay said he had just worked himself out of debt three months before the tornado struck.

"Hell, I've been in debt all my life, so it doesn't bother me to do it again," he said.

Even though damage from Isidore and Lili earned a federal disaster declaration for many parts of the state, places like Savoy didn't qualify for federal help.

Residents who were not insured or were underinsured will have to rely on family, neighbors and faith-based groups, including Church World Service, working in the area.

The Dillehays home insurance has allowed them to rent out a house after spending the first few days after the tornado in a motel.

Dillehay applied for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but said he was denied assistance, something Dillehay doesn't understand. He said he was told that the tornado wasn't considered a part of the disaster area declared because of Lili and Isidore. The tornado came later and was the product of a different storm system, and, according to FEMA, the damage caused by that storm is not covered under the initial disaster declaration.

That may be the legal explanation of why FEMA can't help him but all Dillehay knows is that, after receiving some initial help from the American Red Cross, he isn't getting any money from FEMA.

He hasn't asked anyone, other than his friends and family, for help.

The way he sees it, there are other people who are in worse shape than him, people who also lost their homes, but, unlike him, didn't have any insurance at all.

One of Dillehay's friends, Jerry "Mule" Miller, stopped by to help Saturday as Dillehay and Coty unloaded lumber.

Dillehay, 67, spoke admiringly of his young son, whom he called "a real worker.

"I just didn't want to come back afterward," he added. "But you got to make up your mind to come back. You got to rebuild. It's just lots of work and lot of worry," Dillehay said. "I told my wife, 'Baby, we're going to build it back.'"

By Travis Dunn