A motorized wheelchair sat empty at the curb, next to a house that landed in the middle of Prosperity Street.
The tornado that barreled across Arabi late Tuesday night lifted the one-story home off its cinderblock piers and heaved it into the road, with three people inside. Hours later, neighbors recounted a frenzied search for the wheelchair’s owner, a disabled girl on a respirator who remained in the house after her parents got out.
Neighbor Chuck Heirsch said he’d been sleeping when an emergency phone alert awoke him and large objects began striking his house. Heirsch said he “didn’t have enough time to be scared” before the tornado passed and he cracked the front door.
“I saw the house and I saw my neighbor trying to get his daughter out of there,” said Heirsch, who dialed 911. “They were screaming. His wife of him was hysterical. They were already traumatized from taking that ‘Wizard of Oz’ ride.”
A tornado hit New Orleans on Tuesday night, leaving damage in its path.
Other neighbors also emerged to help, as they did across the path of a devastating tornado that tore through St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans East, leveling structures and sparking an overnight, home-by-home search for people.
“All the men in the neighborhood ran to the house. The mother, they brought her to me. I just held her,” said Nerissa Ledet. “I tried to console her. I said, ‘You know they’re going to get her out of it.’
A team of firefighters and other first responders carried the girl out in a blanket, neighbors said. She was hospitalized and “doing fine,” said St. Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis at a news conference. Family members could not be immediately reached.
1 confirmed death
Arabi took the worst of the tornado, it appears. Officials confirmed one death related to the storm but late Tuesday night declined to offer any details on the victim or the circumstances. A multi-agency search was expected to continue into the morning, though Sheriff Jimmy Pohlmann said there were no reports of people missing.
McInnis and Pohlmann declined to describe storm-related injuries or estimate their numbers or the extent of damage to homes in the parish, saying those figures would come as soon as Wednesday morning.
“We know that it’s plenty,” McInnis said.
As they gathered outside in the dark, neighbors on Prosperity Street described the damage as eerily similar to that of Hurricane Katrina, including a house in the middle of the road.
‘Hold onto the pipes’
Ledet’s husband, Aaron Ledet, 44, grew up on the street in a house destroyed in Katrina. As the tornado reached Arabi, I locked the doors, shut off the lights, and they headed with their 8-year-old daughter to the bathtub.
“I used to live in the Midwest, and I knew that sound. So I guided my family to the bathroom, said ‘hold onto the pipes’ and just started praying,” he said. “I know when that horn goes off, get to the basement. Unfortunately in New Orleans we don’t have foundations. We have pipes and bathtubs.”
McInnis said at a news conference that the parish was planning to open a shelter at Val Riess Park in Chalmette for residents displaced from the tornado.
‘Happened within seconds’
Unlike her husband, Nerissa Ledet said she had no experience bracing for twisters like the one that left their neighborhood in ruins, and their own house with a torn-up roof.
“A lot of things have humbled me in my life, but this,” she said, “it literally happened within seconds.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism