ARABI, La. — A large, destructive tornado struck near the east side of New Orleans on Tuesday evening, causing severe damage and killing at least one person in St. Bernard Parish. The twister was part of an outbreak of severe thunderstorms across the Deep South and followed a siege of tornadoes in Texas on Monday.
A 26-year-old man was reported dead after first responders found him outside his home here in Arabi, La., around 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.
Arabi, between Chalmette and the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, was hit hardest, he said.
“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 urged residents, during a news conference Tuesday, to contact his office before attempting to rescue neighbors. He witnessed emergency responders save a girl who was trapped inside her home’s ventilation system, he said. The girl’s family had been searching for her before firefighters arrived, McInnis added.
Lane said he has not seen this kind of devastation since Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall here along the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005. Large swaths of New Orleans were devastated by Katrina, he told The Post, but what happened Tuesday night “is much more localized — two different types of devastation, but nevertheless, this is significant.”
Heartbreaking scene from New Orleans Metro. Significant damage reported in Arabi/Lower Ninth Ward. 📸Clint, Chalmette looking towards Arabi. @weatherchannel pic.twitter.com/oZA1sI74hZ— Scot Pilié (@ScotPilie_Wx) March 23, 2022
Residents wandered the streets here in the suburb just east of New Orleans late Tuesday night to take a first look at the damage. Some wore pajamas and others held flashlights to avoid the snarled power lines downed by the storm.
One couple rolled their packed suitcases out of the darkened neighborhood as a group of men lugged a generator in. Generators are a staple of hurricane preparation in this region — 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.
In the St. Claude Heights neighborhood, an overturned school bus — with its front windshield smashed and its hood shredded — 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 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 fell 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 okay, the hamster was okay, the dog was okay, and the cat was okay.”
But the family’s home — built by Katz’s grandmother, then rebuilt by Katz and her husband, Gene, after Katrina — was not.
The tornado’s pressure blew out its windows, and the bedroom where the family sought shelter, located in the back of the home, sat open to the night sky.
About 1,800 people were without power in St. Bernard Parish as of early Wednesday, and another 3,100 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 there were no initial reports of deaths or significant damage in Orleans Parish. She said she had been in touch with McInnis in St. Bernard Parish.
“Residents should avoid all travel that isn’t essential, to provide an opportunity for the professionals to handle the situation,” Cantrell said.
In the Katzes’ yard, Gene Katz, 40, used a flashlight to survey what was left of their property.
The family’s aboveground pool was flattened, its waters drenching the grass where it rested only hours before. The shed was splintered across the lawn, and the two large flatboats the family kept there were nowhere in sight.
Still, Gene Katz 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.”
St. Bernard Parish — 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 might not return.
The population in the parish 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.
Kim Vitale, 48, had heard there might be bad weather Tuesday night, so she and her husband prepared as they normally would for a hurricane, picking up loose items in their yard and tying down their son’s trampoline.
“We’re hurricane people, not tornado people, you know? We like the warnings,” she said.
Hearing loud noises and vibrations, Vitale’s husband quickly pushed her and their 9-year-old son to the floor, landing on top of the family to provide protection.
From the ground, Vitale and her family heard windows breaking, then their roof tearing off. It was over almost as fast as it began, and then Vitale had one urgent focus on her mind: checking on her 75-year-old mother, who was alone in the house where she lives next door.
Vitale opened her door and was shocked at the scene across the street: two homes, both almost completely flattened. While Vitale’s husband went to pull screaming neighbors from the rubble, Vitale, panicked, ran to her mom, Joyce Lane.
Lane laughed as she described her much-less-treacherous ordeal Tuesday night.
While Lane’s windows blew out, her home was otherwise fine. Thankfully, this meant Vitale and her family would have a safe place to spend Tuesday night.
Lane noted that storms seem to have worsened in severity across her lifetime and that these bad-weather events also seem to happen more frequently.
“There’s too many,” she said. “Let’s put it that way.”
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., just after the warning was extended into the city of New Orleans.
At 7:22 p.m., the possible tornado was entering neighborhoods along Redwood Drive in the Timberlane area. 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.
Video broadcast on 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.
Incredible video of a tornado in Chalmette, Louisiana taken by local Preston Trahan. @FOX8NOLA pic.twitter.com/MgoMoTgyUZ— Andrés Fuentes (@news_fuentes) March 23, 2022
The tornado was plowing through Arabi at 7:29 p.m. after having crossed the Mississippi River.
A number of neighborhoods suffered heavy damage, with some homes destroyed. A “debris ball” appeared on radar at 7:32 p.m. Then the tornado headed into New Orleans East and likely weakened.
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 dispatch personnel to survey the damage.