A powerful tornado took mere seconds to rip off roofs and destroy homes as it chiseled a path of destruction through a New Orleans area neighborhood where one man died, residents said Wednesday as they picked through wreckage and mourned their neighbor.
Tuesday night's tornado in the Arabi community of St. Bernard Parish sprung from a storm system blamed for earlier tornadoes in Texas that killed a woman north of Dallas and prompted Gov. Gregg Abbott to declare a disaster in 16 counties. It also spawned a tornado that touched down in the Lacombe area of St. Tammany Parish, caused damage in eastern New Orleans and was blamed for torrential rain and building damage in Alabama.
“My neighbor died. Why did it spare us?” Michael Baiamonte asked Wednesday afternoon. He, his wife, their two sons, his father and their dog took refuge in a closet under a stairwell when the tornado hit. “The amount of shaking that was going on in that house for that small time frame was phenomenal," said Baiamonte.
He added that the destruction was all over in the time it took him to say “four Hail Marys.”
Half his roof was gone. And the house where his neighbor, 25-year-old Connor Lambert had lived, was gone. Lambert's body was found amid debris. The St. Bernard Parish coroner's office said he died of multiple blunt force injuries. News outlets said Lambert had grown up in St. Bernard Parish and was an engineer at the Stennis Space Center in nearby Mississippi.
Gov. John Bel Edwards declared an emergency in St. Bernard, Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes. After flying over the area Wednesday, he walked the streets in Arabi, greeting storm victims.
“It’s awfully sad, because the destruction is so devastating,” Edwards said. “The good news is most of your neighbors outside of this narrow swath — they’re able to help.”
In front of her roofless home, a woman told Edwards she, her husband and their 1-year-old son took refuge in the bathroom as the tornado bore down.
“We just dropped down, and he jumped on top of us, covering our son,” she said. “So scary.”
One of the destroyed houses belonged to Jibri Brown, who had not yet spent the night there. She had started moving her belongings into the white house Saturday and spent Tuesday having her TVs mounted. They’re still on the walls, she says, but the house around them is mangled and knocked off its foundation.
“It took me a year to find my perfect house,” said Brown, an ICU nurse. She gestured toward the wreckage: “This is my perfect house.”
The National Weather Service said the Arabi damage was caused by a tornado of at least EF-3 strength, meaning it had winds of 158-206 mph, while the Lacombe-area twister was an EF-1, with winds as strong as 90 mph.
Television stations broadcast live images as the storm damaged an area about 2 miles long and a half-mile wide in St. Bernard Parish, where Ochsner Health said eight patients were treated in an emergency department.
From the air, the Arabi twister’s path reflected in a tight swath of homes that were roofless or reduced to splinters, the wreckage line interrupted in spots where the tornado apparently skipped over buildings. Outside that destruction, homes appeared intact.
Louisiana activated 300 National Guard personnel to clear roads and provide support.
Arabi is near New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward. Like that New Orleans neighborhood, it was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and hit hard again when Hurricane Ida swept through last year.
Baiamonte said he and his family had lived in Arabi when Katrina hit. They moved away, but returned a few years ago. He said there was much new construction in the area, owing to a parish government push encouraging more development.
“It just kept getting louder and louder,” resident Michelle Malasovich said of Tuesday's storm. Her house and Jeep were damaged. Others fared worse: “Our neighbor’s house is in the middle of the street right now.”
The couple inside that home emerged from the wreckage seeking help to rescue their daughter, who was on a breathing machine and trapped inside, neighbors and authorities said. St. Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis later said the girl was “doing fine.”
Lauren Neupert wasn’t at her Arabi home when the tornado hit Tuesday night, but her partner and their 2-year-old daughter were, hiding in the bathroom. They emerged unharmed. But blue sky was visible Wednesday where the roof had ripped off.
“I know it will be months before I’m able to come back to my house,” Neupert said.
As the storm front moved eastward, an apparent twister shredded a metal building and shattered windows east of Mobile Bay. The weather service reported more than 8 inches (20 centimeters) of rainfall in the central Alabama city of Sylacauga overnight. The roofs of several homes were damaged in Toxey, Alabama, where tornado warnings were issued.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said a dozen counties had damage to homes and two injuries were reported.
The vicious weather hit Texas on Monday, with several tornadoes reported along the Interstate 35 corridor. In Elgin, broken trees lined the rural roads and pieces of metal hung from the branches as residents stepped gingerly through the mess.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said 10 people were injured by storms in the Crockett area, while more than a dozen were reportedly hurt elsewhere. The Grayson County Emergency Management Office said a 73-year-old woman was killed in Sherwood Shores, about 60 miles north of Dallas, but provided no details.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.