A 26-year-old man was reported dead after first responders found him outside his home in the Arabi neighborhood about 10 p.m. local time, according to John Lane, a spokesman for St. Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis.
Other residents were hospitalized with injuries that are not life-threatening, Lane told The Washington Post early Wednesday.
He said the Arabi neighborhood, between the Lower Ninth Ward and Chalmette, was the area hit hardest by the tornado.
“There was severe devastation,” Lane said. “We have houses that have been completely flattened. We have houses that have been moved off [their] foundations and suffered severe structural damages.”
McInnis said during a news conference Tuesday that he witnessed emergency responders rescue a girl who was trapped inside her home’s ventilation system. The girl’s family had been searching for her before firefighters were able to save her, McInnis said. He asked all residents to contact his office before venturing out to rescue neighbors.
Lane said he has not seen this kind of devastation since Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in southeast Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005.
Large swaths of New Orleans were devastated by Hurricane Katrina, he told The Post, but what happened Tuesday night “is much more localized — two different types of devastation, but nevertheless, this is significant.”
St. Bernard — located just east of New Orleans near Lake Borgne, the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River — saw some of the worst of Hurricane Katrina’s flooding nearly 17 years ago. More than half of the parish’s 25,000 homes were lost in that storm, and officials at the time worried residents may not return.
The population there is back up to nearly 50,000. Early Wednesday, community members and first responders were navigating a maze of downed power lines blocking streets to reach residents.
“We are eager for the morning to get out and assess the damage,” Lane told The Post.
The New Orleans Fire Department is responding to reports of injuries and trapped people, according to the Weather Channel. The Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal reported that search-and-rescue teams have been dispatched and response workers are on-site in Arabi.
Late Tuesday night, many residents wandered the streets of this suburb just east of New Orleans to take a first look at the damage. Some sported pijamas and while others held flashlights to avoid the snarled power lines downed by the storm.
One couple rolled their packed suitcase out of the darkened neighborhood, as a separate group of men lugged a generator back in. Owning a generator in this part of the Gulf Coast is not uncommon. They are a staple of hurricane preparation for those who can afford them, and many Arabi residents had theirs up and running mere hours after the tornado struck.
But in some areas, the damage was too severe to rely on this hack.
In the St. Claude Heights neighborhood, an overturned school bus — with its front windshield smashed and its shredded hood — blocked the road in front of Arabi Elementary School.
Next door, Jessica Katz, 40, apologized for the mess in her home. Clothes, toys and personal items were scattered across the dark house, and water coated the floors.
Before the tornado hit, Katz was talking with her children in the living room when her husband suddenly told everyone to get up and head to the master bedroom to seek shelter.
The family huddled together in its large closet. Seconds later, the tornado hit.
“As I was closing the door, the pressure from the wind slammed it shut,” Katz told The Post. “Then I felt a cool breeze.”
That breeze came from above, as the twister lifted the roof off the family’s home.
“Everything felt on top of us,” Katz said. The tornado, she said, passed quickly and she and her 9 and 11-year-old children escaped unscathed.
“My son was so worried about his turtle,” Katz said. “But the turtle was OK, the hamster was OK, the dog was OK, and the cat was OK.”
But the family’s home — originally built by Katz’s grandmother, then rebuilt by Katz and her husband Gene Katz after Katrina — was not OK.
The tornado’s pressure blew out all of its windows, and the bedroom where the family sought shelter, located in the back of the home, sat open to the night sky.
Social media footage revealed a large, powerful tornado ripping across the night sky. It appeared to be a multi-vortex twister, with at least one additional funnel orbiting around a primary wedge-shaped cone.
About 2,200 people were without power in St. Bernard Parish as of early Wednesday, and another 2,700 people had lost power in Jefferson and Orleans parishes, according to PowerOutageUS.com.
Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said state and local officials were assessing the damage. “My prayers are with you in Southeast Louisiana tonight,” he said in a tweet. “Please be safe.”
In a statement released Tuesday evening, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) said so far, there were no reports of deaths or significant damage to the Orleans Parish. Cantrell said she has been in touch with St. Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis.
“Our partners at Entergy are working to restore power to the 8,000 customers impacted,” Cantrell said. “Residents should avoid all travel that isn’t essential, to provide an opportunity for the professionals to handle the situation.”
In the yard, Katz’s husband, Gene Katz, 40, used a flashlight to survey what was left of their property.
The family’s pool was now flattened, its waters drenching the grass where it rested only hours before. The shed was splintered across the lawn, and the two floatboats the family kept there were nowehere in sight.
Still, Gene chose not to fret about the damage.
“It’s mother nature,” he said. “You can’t stop it. This ain’t the first time, and it probably won’t be the last time. It’s life.”
How the tornado evolved, and its path
The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning southwest of New Orleans at 7 p.m. Central time. Rotation tightened markedly around 7:20 p.m. as the circulation approached Destrehan Avenue in Woodmere, a suburb of southern New Orleans. The tornado warning was extended into the city of New Orleans at 7:18 p.m.
Doppler radar indicated a sudden uptick in spectrum width, or a radar product that shows in pixels how chaotic the range of motions/wind speeds are. A sudden spike in values over Woodmere indicated turbulence commensurate with a possible tornado.
At 7:22 p.m., the possible tornado was entering neighborhoods along Redwood Drive in the Timberlane area.
The rotation then arrived in Gretna at 7:24 p.m., forming over the Highway 90 business route with a “doughnut hole” signature on radar, indicating an updraft so strong that it suspends rainfall. The tornado was described as “large” and was confirmed by a National Weather Service employee at 7:25 p.m., around which time video of it was being broadcast live on television stations across the New Orleans area.
Radar data indicates the tornado passed directly over the Terrytown area at 7:26 p.m., probably damaging areas around the Oakwood Center shopping mall. A number of subdivisions in that area were in the direct path of the destructive tornado.
At 7:28 p.m., the tornado was just west of Shirley Drive in the vicinity of Behrman Memorial Park and near the Harriet Tubman Charter School. Delgado Community College and the Gilmore Park Apartments were either directly impacted by or uncomfortably close to the tornado.
Video broadcast live by TV news stations depicted horizontal vortices shedding off the main trunk-like vortex of the tornado — a sign of intense vertical motion and winds approaching or exceeding 130 mph.
The tornado was plowing through the Arabi neighborhood at 7:29 p.m. after having crossed the Mississippi River. It appears to have entered the Lower Ninth Ward near the St. Bernard Indoor Shooting Center or just west of the railroad yard near American Sugar Refining.
A number of neighborhoods suffered heavy damage, with some homes destroyed. A “debris ball” appeared on radar near West Jackson Drive at 7:32 p.m. Then the tornado headed into New Orleans East and likely weakened upon approach to Interstate 10. It’s unclear whether it crossed the highway before dissipating about 7:45 p.m.
The parent thunderstorm developed at the tail end of a cold front pushing through the area. The risk of strong tornadoes had been advertised, but the focus was farther north. However, this storm had something the others didn’t: isolation. It was a lone, discrete supercell, which allowed it to tap into the full wind shear without competing with neighbors. Unfortunately, that translated to the storm reaching its full destructive potential.
Tornadoes are not uncommon in New Orleans. Since 1950, seven significant tornadoes have tracked through the area.
Initial social media videos indicate damage in at least the EF2 range, with an EF3 tornado or more possible. The National Weather Service in Slidell, La., said it would be dispatching personnel to survey the damage.