A large, destructive tornado struck the east side of New Orleans on Tuesday evening, causing severe damage and killing at least one person in the St. Bernard Parish area. 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 in the Arabi neighborhood around 10 p.m. local time, according to John Lane, a spokesman for St. Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis.
Other residents have hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, Lane told The Washington Post early Wednesday.
He said the Arabi neighborhood, between the Lower 9th Ward and Chalmette, has been the area most impacted 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.”
Lane said he has not seen this kind of devastation since Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in southeast Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005.
While large swaths of New Orleans were devastated in Hurricane Katrina, he told The Post what happened Tuesday night “is much more localized — two different types of devastation but nevertheless this is significant.”
Early Wednesday, community members and first responders had already started walking through a maze of downed power lines blocking the streets to check on 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 the State Fire Marshal reported that search-and-rescue teams have been dispatched and response workers are on-site in Arabi.
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.
“This is something I’d hope I would never see,” New Orleans broadcast meteorologist Margaret Orr told viewers as her station, WDSU, captured the tornado in the distance.
About 2,200 people were without power in St. Bernard Parish as of early Wednesday, and another 4,200 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.”
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 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., likely 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 9th 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 around 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.