Videos captured the large tornado ripping through Arabi
One Man Killed
A 25-year-old from Arabi was the only reported death
A split-second decision
A father and son's lives spared
'Wizard of Oz'
Tornado lifted one home into the air
Houses destroyed, debris hangs from electrical wires, trees
Tornado's wrath revealed
A Rare Tornado
New Orleans is used to hurricanes, not tornadoes.
A powerful tornado tore through parts of New Orleans and its suburbs Tuesday night, taking mere seconds to rip off rooftops, flipping cars and tossing a home with a family inside onto the middle of a street. Authorities say one man was killed and several others were injured.
Parts of St. Bernard Parish, which borders New Orleans to the southeast, took the brunt of the weather's fury, and that is where 25-year-old Connor Lambert was killed.
Several buildings were either damaged or destroyed by the twister. On Wednesday, tornado survey teams from the National Weather Service initially concluded that the damage was consistent with "at least" an EF-3 tornado with winds of 136 to 165 miles per hour.
Whirlwind: Videos captured the large tornado ripping through Arabi
The tornado was first reported shortly after 7 p.m. as the worst of the evening's severe weather passed through the region. Up until that point, the weather brought little fanfare, but the situation quickly changed as the NWS issued multiple overlapping tornado warnings. Power outages were reported across the New Orleans area, including at the WWL-TV studios, causing the station to rely on generator power during its live coverage.
Videos shared on social media captured a large tornado ripping through Arabi, leveled homes, overturned cars and left fields of debris.
The tornado appeared to start its path on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish before it moved east across the Mississippi River into New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish. Damage was not as extensive in New Orleans East and Jefferson Parish, but neighbors who lived in those areas reported damage to their fences and homes.
Arabi resident Michelle Massovich said she was worried about family in north Louisiana who was also getting hit by bad weather earlier in the day. She was texting with family there when she said "All of a sudden the lights started flickering.”
Her husband was out on the porch and saw the tornado coming.
“It just kept getting louder and louder,” Malasovich said. After it passed, they came out to survey the damage. “Our neighbor’s house is in the middle of the street right now.”
Michael Baiamonte and his wife, two sons, father and his dog took refuge in a closet under a stairwell when the tornado struck.
"The amount of shaking that was going on in that house for that small time frame was phenomenal," Baiamonte said. He added that the destruction was all over in the time it took him to say “four Hail Marys.”
"My neighbor died. Why did it spare us?" he said.
One Man Killed: A 25-year-old from Arabi was the only reported death
Next door from Baiamonte, the house where 25-year-old Connor Lambert had lived was gone. Officials say Lambert was getting out of his truck and was running to his porch when his home exploded from the twister. His truck was wrapped around a nearby tree.
Lambert's body was found in a neighbor's yard, near the body of his pet Australian Shepherd. The St. Bernard Parish Coroner's Office said he died from multiple blunt force injuries.
Lambert grew up in St. Bernard Parish and was a graduate of Chalmette High School and University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He worked as an engineer at the Stennis Space Center in nearby Mississippi.
A split-second decision: A father and son's lives spared
Jason Dixon was overcome with emotions as he described in chilling detail how he and his 5-year-old son survived by huddling in the only room of the house left standing.
"I could have lost him," he said, thinking of his son Canaan. "I've been afraid ever since he was born for him. But the Lord was really watching out for us."
Dixon said he was on the phone with his ex-wife and Canaan's mother when he heard the air outside go silent and knew it was time to take cover. He thought of going to the bathtub, but headed instead for a water closet, a completely walled-in room closer to the center of his house and along a load-bearing wall.
“I argued with myself if you can believe that. Or God, I think, was what it was,” he said. “Because I wanted to go in there (to the bathtub) and it was like, ‘No, you don't need to go in there. It's not the right one.’”
Dixon said he was lifted off the ground by the suction when his roof blew off, but he spread out his arms over his son and pushed him down so he wouldn't be pulled into the vortex.
After he and Canaan emerged from the rubble of his home, he saw a massive piece of metal had hurtled in from the street and pieced the wall of the bathtub, right where his head would have been if they had taken shelter there.
'Wizard of Oz': Tornado lifted one home into the air
The tornado also lifted on Arabi home with a family inside into the air before dropping it in the middle of Prosperity Street.
Dea Castellanos heard the rain and wind outside as she sat on her living room couch. Her daughter, who has muscular dystrophy, was in another room. The next thing Castellanos knew, the entire house began spinning.
Castellanos said she could feel the house whip through a full rotation, and she wound up in a bedroom.
Tossed about 30 feet from its lot, the one-story house crashed down in the middle of a street, Castellanos said Wednesday through a translator during an interview with The Associated Press. The seconds became a blur.
Within moments, neighbors saw the girls’ parents climbing out of the wreckage, calling frantically for help. Their daughter was still in her bedroom inside the rubble, calling for her mom.
“They were screaming. His wife was hysterical,” neighbor Chuck Heirsch, who called 911, told The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate when he saw his neighbors trying to get to their daughter. “They were already traumatized from taking that ‘Wizard of Oz’ ride.”
“All the men in the neighborhood ran to the house. The mother, they brought her to me. I just held her,” Nerissa Ledet told the newspaper. “I tried to console her. I said, ‘You know they’re going to get her out.’”
Firefighters quickly arrived and carried the daughter out in a blanket. An ambulance took the girl to the hospital, where she was operated on overnight, Castellanos said. Describing the rescue, St. Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis said the hospitalized girl was “doing fine.”
Aftermath: Houses destroyed, debris hangs from electrical wires, trees
Immediately after the storm passed, rescue workers began assessing damage and searching through the dark for people in need of help, though the true extent of the storm's wrath would not be revealed until sunrise.
"We have widespread damage from south Arabi to north Arabi," McInnis said. "We’re going through homes, search and rescue and clearing homes. We have some homes in south Arabi that we’re trying to get to, we’re getting calls from people saying they’re trapped."
In Gretna and Terrytown, Jefferson Parish Councilman Ricky Templet said damage was limited to mostly downed fences and some trees.
Many residents also suffered damage just last year when Hurricane Ida — a Category 4 hurricane — swept through the region. Stacey Mancuso’s family had just completed repairs to their home in the suburb of Arabi after Ida ripped off the roof and caused extensive water damage. Then the tornado Tuesday tore through their street. She huddled in the laundry room with her husband; two children, ages 16 and 11; and dogs as part of their new roof was lifted away by the wind.
“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,” said Mancuso. Still, the twister was the third time they’ve had major weather damage since Katrina in 2005.
In Arabi, there was a strong smell of natural gas in the air as residents and rescue personnel stood in the street and surveyed the damage. Some houses were destroyed while pieces of debris hung from electrical wires and trees. An aluminum fishing boat in front of one house was bent into the shape of a C with the motor across the street. Power poles were down and leaning over, forcing emergency workers to walk slowly through darkened neighborhoods checking for damage.
Sunrise: Tornado's wrath revealed
As the sun rose, first responders got their first glimpse of the tornado's wrath.
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.
“I couldn’t explain the noise it was making,” said Lloyd Breaux, who said he opened up his front door in Arabi to a scene out of a movie. “You see stuff like this on TV,” he exclaimed. “It sounded like my whole house was coming apart.”
In areas near Rose Street, Karl Street and Friscoville, the storm took off rooftops, turned some homes into kindling and even overturned a few cars.
“This was massive,” said Breaux. “I don’t want to live through this again. It’s crazy what these things can do.”
James Norwalt, 66, walked out of his house on Friscoville and looked out at the heavy damage around him. Then he turned to his neighbor's house.
"Whoa, they ain't got no roof at all. That thing must have dropped right down on us!" Norwalt said.
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. Edwards offered encouragement and said it was miraculous that more people didn't lose their lives or suffer serious injuries.
The National Guard, Louisiana State Police and firefighters from the surrounding parishes went door-to-door the night of the storm making sure people were safe. The next day, they were clearing roads and protecting neighborhoods as they began to clean up and rebuild.
They weren’t the only ones.
Volunteers, neighbors, friends and family were all over Arabi as the sun came up Wednesday. Gov. Edwards said that mutual aid like that is essential right now because it doesn’t have to deal with the same bureaucracy and red tape that the government does.
“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.”
It also sends a clear message to the people affected by the tornado – that they’re not alone.
A Rare Tornado: New Orleans is used to hurricanes, not tornadoes.
While people in the metropolitan region are used to dealing with severe weather such as hurricanes or heavy rains, it’s rare that a tornado moves through the city. A 2017 tornado caused widespread damage when it touched down in the eastern part of the city.
Ahead of the severe weather, many schools closed early or cancelled after-school activities in parts of Louisiana and Mississippi. Shelters opened for residents who needed a place to stay while the storms traveled through.
Other tornadoes spawned by the same storm system had hit parts of Texas and Oklahoma, killing one person Monday and causing multiple injuries and widespread damage.
After leaving the New Orleans area, the system dumped heavy rain, downed trees and prompted multiple tornado warnings as it moved into Alabama Tuesday evening. The roofs of several homes were damaged in Toxey, Alabama, after a storm preceded by tornado warnings passed through the area, the National Weather Service tweeted.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.