‘Widespread damage’ after tornado rips through New Orleans, surrounding area; 1 dead

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NEW ORLEANS – Search-and-rescue efforts continued Wednesday after a large tornado struck parts of the city and the surrounding suburbs, killing at least one person and tearing apart homes, officials said.

On Wednesday, Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency and called the destruction “devastating” while touring the area. 

After flying over the area Wednesday, Edwards walked the streets of the tornado-stricken Arabi community near New Orleans, greeting storm victims picking through the wreckage of their homes.

“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 Arabi, debris hung from electrical wires and trees amid destroyed houses. Power poles were down, forcing emergency workers to walk slowly through darkened neighborhoods checking for damage on Wednesday

Louisiana activated 300 National Guard personnel to clear roads and provide support.

Amy Sims, who jumped into her car when the tornado warning sounded and drove to the Arabi Heights area to check on relatives, said she “wasn’t mentally prepared” to see the devastation.

“A bomb looked like it had gone off,” she said, describing emergency medics, some crying, dodging live wires as they went door-to-door through shattered homes.

The tornado ripped through the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish, which borders it to the southeast. Parish Sheriff James Pohlmann said Tuesday night at a news conference that one person was confirmed dead and several were injured.

“We have widespread damage,” St. Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis said.

Photos and video from Tuesday night showed the massive twister in the city. The tornado was preliminarily rated an EF-3, with winds at least 136 mph, the National Weather Service said Wednesday.  

The tornado spawned from a larger storm system that struck the South this week. At least one other death was reported in the storms, and widespread damage occurred in Texas and Oklahoma. Severe weather was expected in the Southeast on Wednesday. 

TORNADO STRIKES NEW ORLEANS: 1 reported dead outside city, search-and-rescue teams deployed

Tornado tears through New Orleans suburb of St. Bernard Parish

Parts of St. Bernard Parish took the brunt of the storm’s effects. The New Orleans Fire Department assisted search-and-rescue operations there.

North of New Orleans, in Lacombe, Louisiana, a second tornado touched down Tuesday evening, the National Weather Service said. Most of the damage from the storm was concentrated in Arabi in St. Bernard Parish, according to the weather service.

Pohlmann said Tuesday night initial rescue efforts would go into the early morning. Officials provided no immediate details about the fatality in St. Bernard Parish. The weather service said the death and injuries occurred in Arabi.

At the news conference, McInnis said the storm lifted a home from its foundation and dropped it in the middle of the street. A young girl on a ventilator was inside, and her father yelled for help.

Neighbor Chuck Heirsch told The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate that he called 911 as he saw his neighbor trying to reach his daughter.

“They were screaming. His wife was hysterical. They were already traumatized from taking that ‘Wizard of Oz’ ride,” Heirsch said. The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reported the girl was carried out of the house wrapped in a blanket, and McInnis said she was “doing fine.”

Danielle Wetzel’s voice shook as she described the damage wreaked by the tornado, saying she ran into a bathroom with her 14-year-old Chihuahua, Nola, and held onto the toilet.

“It was all I could think to do,” she said. “I was in there praying please don’t let me die, please don’t let me die.”

A few hours after the storm swept through the area, Wetzel stood outside her home, looking at her Christmas ornaments strewn across the yard. Her car was damaged, and the home across the street is completely gone.

Police blocked off most of the streets around her home.

Stacey Mancuso said she huddled in the laundry room of her home in Arabi with her husband, two children and dogs as the wind lifted away part of their roof.

“We’re alive. That’s what I can say at this point. We still have four walls and part of a roof. I consider myself lucky,” Mancuso said.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell tweeted there were no reports of fatalities or significant damage in the city; however, 8,000 customers had their power knocked out. Power was back for most customers by Wednesday morning.

State authorities assisted departments in searches and damage assessments, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards tweeted. “My prayers are with you in Southeast Louisiana tonight. Please be safe,” he said.

Storms headed east, caused damage around the South

After moving through the New Orleans area, the storms continued their march east and caused damage in Alabama.

The weather service office in Mobile tweeted Tuesday night that a confirmed tornado touched down in the town of Summerdale and moved toward Robertsdale. Farther north in Toxey, the roofs of several homes were damaged in the storms, the weather service said.

Severe thunderstorms were forecast to move through the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday, bringing damaging winds and the possibility of tornadoes, the weather service office in Tallahassee said.

The storms were also expected to move through Georgia and the Carolinas on Wednesday, according to weather service offices.

This week, tornadoes touched down in Texas and Oklahoma within the storm system, and several tornadoes were reported along the Interstate 35 corridor.

The storms destroyed homes and businesses and downed power lines. In Sherwood Shores, Texas, one person was killed in a tornado and several others injured.

In Jacksboro, Texas, a storm ripped off the wall and roof at Jacksboro High School and damaged 60 to 80 homes, WFAA-TV reported. 

More than 16,000 power customers were without electricity Wednesday morning, according to PowerOutage.US.

Contributing: Doyle Rice, Christine Fernando and Celina Tebor, USA TODAY; Roberto Villalpando, Claire Osborn and Tony Plohetski, Austin American-Statesman; The Associated Press