Chad Lawrence was grocery shopping at Wal-Mart in Arabi on the eastern fringe of New Orleans Tuesday when an emergency alert flashed across his cellphone at 7:19 p.m.: “TORNADO WARNING in this area until 8:15 PM CDT. Take shelter now.”
He didn’t think too much of it. The weather is a wild thing in this southern Louisiana city wedged between Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico to the south. Weather alerts are frequent occurrences. Usually, it’s just a big storm.
Then the power went out and he headed back to his house.
It was gone.
The Greater New Orleans area, home to about 1.2 million people, had been under a tornado watch throughout the day as a storm front that brought tornados and flooding to Texas Monday barrelled eastward toward an area far more accustomed to hurricanes. That watch was upgraded to a warning, meaning imminent danger, just before dark.
An eerie yellow-gray pall descended, and wind and rain lashed the city. Along its eastern border, an enormous tornado chewed its way across the Mississippi River and cut a swath through Arabi, tossing houses from their foundations, snapping streetlight poles and power lines, hurling trucks and trailers and school buses, uprooting massive pine trees. A 25-year-old man was found dead amid the rubble of his home the next morning, and many others were injured.
The National Weather Service estimated the tornado was at least an EF-3, with winds of 254 to 332 kilometres per hour. Another smaller tornado struck north of Lake Pontchartrain around the same time. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared an emergency Wednesday in the hardest-hit parishes. The weather system continued to move eastward, bringing damage to Mississippi, Alabama and other states.
Lawrence picked through the rubble of his home on Wednesday, salvaging what he could. The only part left standing was an interior wall around a bathroom that held a shower stall. That’s where his roommate and roommate’s son sheltered when the tornado hit.
“That’s what saved them,” said Lawrence.
A travel trailer and a large pine tree lay atop what had been the child’s bedroom. Just across Benjamin Street, perhaps 20 metres away, the neighbour’s house was unscathed; potted plants still hung over the veranda.
“We’re used to crazy weather,” said Lawrence, who stayed for a month after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. The storm surge overtopped and destroyed the levees that surround the city, most of which lies below sea level (there are no basements in New Orleans because the water table is so high — even graves are above ground). Water as deep as seven metres engulfed some areas. Arabi and the neighbouring Lower Ninth Ward were among the hardest hit. More than 1,800 were killed, some drowned in their attics as they tried to escape the rising water.
New Orleans was pummelled again just seven months ago by hurricane Ida, a Category 4 storm that made landfall in Louisiana on Aug. 29, exactly 16 years after Katrina and became the second-most destructive hurricane in U.S. history. Ida killed more than 100 people across the country. Thousands of families in Louisiana are still living in travel trailers after their homes were destroyed, and thousands more were still rebuilding — an aerial view of New Orleans shows a sea of blue-tarped roofs — when the tornado struck.
“This is a different kind of destruction,” said Lawrence. “This one, it came quick; you couldn’t prepare for it.”
Kelly Melerine was working at the Discount Food Mart on St. Claude Avenue when she got the alert. The wind had been popping the door open all day and she knew a storm was coming, but like Lawrence, she wasn’t too concerned. Then the power went out. Flickered back on for a moment. Then everything went dark. She gathered the keys and crossed the store to lock the front door.
As she tried to pull the door shut, the tornado enveloped her. Wind dragged her outward. Her foot got jammed in the wrought iron security gate outside the door.
“That’s the only thing that kept me from getting sucked out with the wind,” said Melerine. She fought her way back inside, hearing debris hit the building and glass breaking, and huddled in the deepest corner of the store.
“It was pure terror,” said Melerine. “I felt like somebody had a snow globe and was just shaking the hell out of it — while I was inside it.”
And then, silence. Two feet of broken glass lay at the front door, along with concrete chunks and wood. Street signal lights were on the ground outside. “I never thought they were that big until there was one sitting on my doorstep,” she said.
A woman who lives in a trailer beside the store with her child and fiancé noticed the sky change colour Tuesday evening.
“It was a beautiful sky,” said the woman, who didn’t want her name published. “But it was like, doom is coming.” Then it went dark. It was time to get out of the trailer. Her fiancé stepped outside, saying, “C’mon y’all, let’s go,” and then the wind slammed the door shut. The woman threw herself over her child and prayed.
“I didn’t know if he got sucked up or not,” she said.
Half a block down Friscoville Avenue, Maria Vega was at home with her daughter and grandchildren.
“We thought it was just gonna dump a whole lotta rain,” said Vega. Then came the tornado warning, and she turned on the news to find out what was going on. The lights went out, and she went to look out the window.
“I hear what sounds like a train coming and I said, ‘Run to the closet,’” said Vega. “And then we heard glass breaking everywhere.
“That’s all we heard was glass. It was over and done in 10, 15 seconds. Then we came outside and saw all the devastation.”
Jason Labit, who lives nearby on Alexander Avenue beside a railway line, had just stepped out for a smoke. The rain was blowing sideways — and then it suddenly stopped, and he heard a train coming.
“I knew the train wasn’t operating with the weather situation, so I went inside and got my wife and my kids, and we all went to the middle of the house and just hunkered down. And within two minutes, it was gone, and then we come outside and — devastation.”
Sunrise Wednesday illuminated the destruction.
A house sat in the middle of a street, missing one side. It had been pulled off its foundation and hurled perhaps 30 metres with a family of three inside. A teenage girl was trapped for hours. She underwent surgery at a nearby hospital and, according to her cousin, was expected to recover.
Pink insulation hung from broken tree limbs like the Spanish moss that sways on massive oaks across the city. Vehicle windows looked as if they’d been sprayed by bullets and huge sheets of metal wrapped tightly around power poles. A utility trailer lay atop the crumpled remains of a house. Small pieces of people’s lives were scattered along sidewalks and yards and streets: a basketball, a baby gate, a Miracle Gro watering can, a pink elephant onesie, child-sized.
And people were cleaning up, rebuilding, again. The sound of trucks and machinery and hammers rang out across Arabi.
“It’s a crazy situation, but you just gotta pick up and go on,” said Jason Labit, who had taken in his neighbours’ children after their home was destroyed. “We been through Katrina. We pick up and move on.”
The Food Discount Mart was spotless and open for business Wednesday morning, the plywood-covered door the only indication of what had happened there the evening before. Melerine had a huge bruise on her arm and no idea how she’d got it, but she was feeling OK.
The woman who lives next door laughed and said, “We’re still here. We went through it with Katrina, Ida, all these other ones. We’ll clean it up and keep going.”
On Wednesday morning, LaKenya Roberson drove from her home in the Lower Garden District to Arabi to survey the damage. “It’s devastating,” said Roberson, an organizer with the community coalition Together New Orleans. “There’s a lot of total loss.”
She put out a call for volunteers to assemble at the Central Missionary Baptist Church in the nearby Lower Ninth Ward to canvass the destroyed neighbourhoods and find out what people needed — and let them know the community was with them. “We want everyone to know they’re not alone.”
Her phone rang off the hook, and dozens of people from all across the city showed up to help.
“When stuff like this happens, we all help each other out,” said Lawrence. “We all pull together.”
St. Bernard Parish workers drove around with a flatbed of bottled water, handing them out to residents. Church groups circulated, asking if anyone needed food, shelter, clothing. Donations poured into community organizations. People pulled red wagons loaded with food and drinks to distribute; one very popular man pushed around a wheelbarrow of beer. Neighbours checked in on each other, stood together surveying the damage and even joked. “I guess we’ll get around to that renovation now,” said Lawrence, laughing.
Maria Vega walked up her street Wednesday morning and saw the destruction. Looking at one flattened home, she began to sob.
“I couldn’t stop crying; it was just so hard,” said Vega. “A man came and shook my hand. He said, ‘It’s gonna be all right, the Lord has got us and I know we’re gonna be OK. We got through Katrina, we can take anything.’”
Then told her that was his house she was looking at. “And he’s trying to console me,” said Vega. “I wish it was me. I’d take the pain away from anyone if I could.”
Outside the local Chevron, country music blared from a speaker while volunteers handed out fried chicken and rice, water, toothpaste, cleaning supplies. Children stood along West Judge Perez Drive with cardboard signs pointing the way to food and water. Those with generators — the power was still out — hung signs offering people a place to charge their phones.
Late in the afternoon, an elderly woman called out across the street: “Y’all live around here?” She carried a bucket of po’boys to give to anyone in need.