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After powerful tornado, New Orleans-area residents begin to pick up the pieces again

Homes are damaged from the tornado that touched down In Arabi, La., on March 22. (Emily Kask/Emily Kask for The Washington Post)
5 min

Arabi, La. — The members of this tightknit community in St. Bernard Parish always knew another storm would blow into the New Orleans area and upend their lives.

But here along the Mississippi River, in a community devastated by Hurricane Katrina, residents worried about flooding. Few expected a tornado would once again leave them angry and frightened by the power of weather.

On Wednesday, one day after an unusually strong tornado ripped through the eastern suburbs of New Orleans, Arabi residents spent the day picking through debris as they searched for their belongings and tried to console neighbors who once again have to rebuild their lives.

“Unfortunately, our people have become all too familiar with rebuilding after tragedy and loss, but it is never easy,” said Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), who flew over the damage Wednesday afternoon then met with residents.

According to a preliminary assessment by the National Weather Service, the tornado that hit about 7:30 p.m. local time Tuesday was at least an EF3 on the 0 to 5 Enhanced Fujita scale.

New Orleans multi-vortex tornado rated ‘at least’ EF3, strongest since 2017

Tuesday’s tornado killed a 25-year-old man and damaged or destroyed dozens of homes in Arabi, which borders parts of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward. Damage was also reported in parts of Jefferson, Orleans and St. Tammany parishes.

New Orleans officials said the tornado appeared to skirt the city’s eastern boundary, sparing the city from major damage. But New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) declared a state emergency on Wednesday, saying the storm still brought down trees and power lines and damaged some properties in the city.

But in Arabi, a working-class community that traces its history back to the slaughterhouses that once operated here, residents woke up Wednesday to the aftermath of yet another disaster.

Along St. Claude Avenue, the main thoroughfare that cuts from Arabi into New Orleans, several businesses no longer had roofs. Nearby, a brick home was crushed by a massive oak tree and a church was decimated. Other homes were missing roofs, walls or front doors.

The smell of insulation hung in the air as utility company linemen worked to restore power.

“You kind of have survivor’s remorse,” said Chelly Lozes, 47, whose home was left undamaged by the tornado. She spent the day handing out relief supplies.

Rallying to help neighbors after a disaster has become all too common here in the New Orleans area, one of the most disaster-prone parts of the United States.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina’s storm inundated Arabi with floodwaters from three different directions and covered the entire town in floodwaters that were 15-feet deep in some places. Even today, the area consists of a patchwork of vacant lots where homeowners never rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina.

In the years since, New Orleans has been repeatedly threatened by tropical storms and hurricanes, including Hurricane Ida last August.

Large tornadoes have struck the New Orleans region before — an EF3 tornado struck just a few miles north of Arabi on Feb. 2, 2017. That tornado damaged hundreds of homes and injured dozens of people.

Officials said it will take some time to assess the damage left behind by Tuesday’s storm.

“The nature of a tornado really doesn’t make sense,” Edwards said during a news conference. “You have one house that is totally destroyed and the next home not damaged at all. … But for the amount of damage that you see … we would think there would be a lot more deaths than we have seen. ”

But as they stood in kitchens and living rooms and stared up at the open sky, many Arabi residents said they were not prepared for the tornado’s power.

Kyle Arabi, 29, was out having dinner with his mother, his girlfriend and their 2-year-old daughter when the tornado tore through their family’s rental house. The tornado peeled off the roof, allowing light to creep through ceiling vent covers.

“That is just looking at the sky,” Arabi said Wednesday morning, as he pulled down a staircase that once led to the attic.

Samantha Bopp, 29, became a first-time homeowner when she purchased her single-story house in the Old Arabi neighborhood last year.

Bopp does regional community outreach for a U.S. senator’s office, so she spends much of her time talking with residents still grappling with the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.

So when Bopp bought her own home, she knew she needed insurance for the flooding that often comes with storms. “But tornadoes? They are not the norm around here,” Bopp said.

Not just funnel clouds over fields: Tornadoes cut paths of devastation across U.S. cities

Bopp happened to be at a friend’s house when the tornado touched down in her neighborhood.

When she returned here early Wednesday, she immediately noticed baby clothes strewn all across her front lawn. Bopp worried about the child those clothes belonged to.

“I’m just hopeful that’s old stuff, from an attic,” she said.

Inside Bopp’s living room, bright morning light shone through the inch-wide gap where her ceiling once met her walls. Most of Bopp’s roof was blown off by the twister, but her wig collection — crucial for Mardi Gras season — still hung neatly on the wall in her spare room.

Bopp’s bed was covered in glass shards from when the home’s windows apparently came smashing inward.

Bopp was thankful that she and her parents, who live three doors down, were all elsewhere during the storm. And she spent Wednesday preparing for a new milestone in homeownership: her first time dealing with insurance.

“We went through Katrina, so we all lost things before,” Bopp reminded herself. “It’s all just stuff.”

Tim Craig reported from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated where Samantha Bopp works. The story has been corrected.