Social media footage revealed a large, powerful tornado ripping across the night sky. It appeared to be a multi-vortex twister, with at least one additional funnel orbiting around a primary wedge-shaped cone.
“This is something I’d hope I would never see,” New Orleans broadcast meteorologist Margaret Orr told viewers as her station (affiliate WDSU) camera captured the tornado in the distance.
About 3,000 people were without power in St. Bernard Parish, and another 8,000 people in the New Orleans metro area, according to PowerOutageUS.com.
Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said state and local officials were assessing the damage. “My prayers are with you in Southeast Louisiana tonight,” he said in a tweet. “Please be safe.”
How the tornado evolved and its path
The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning southwest of New Orleans at 7 p.m. Central time. Rotation tightened markedly around 7:20 as the circulation approached Destrehan Ave in Woodmere, a suburb of southern New Orleans. The tornado warning was extended into the city of New Orleans at 7:18 p.m..
Doppler radar indicated a sudden uptick in spectrum width, or a radar product that shows how chaotic the range of motions/wind speeds in pixels are. A sudden spike in values over Woodmere indicated turbulence commensurate with a possible tornado.
At 7:22 p.m., the possible tornado was entering neighborhoods along Redwood Drive in the Timberlane area, just east of Martin Luther King Jr. Park.
The rotation then arrived in Gretna at 7:24 p.m., forming over the Highway 90 business route with a “doughnut hole” signature on radar indicating an updraft so strong that it’s suspending rainfall. The tornado was described as “large” and confirmed by a National Weather Service employee at 7:25 p.m., around which time video of it was being broadcast live on television stations across the New Orleans area.
Radar data indicates the tornado passed directly over the Terrytown area at 7:26 p.m., likely damaging areas around the Oakwood Center shopping mall. A number of subdivisions in that area were in the direct path of the destructive tornado.
At 7:28 p.m., the tornado was just west of Shirley Drive in the vicinity of Behrman Memorial Park and near the Harriet Tubman Charter School. Delgado Community College and the Gilmore Park Apartments were either directly impacted by or uncomfortably close to the tornado.
Video broadcast live by TV news stations depicted horizontal vortices shedding off the main trunk-like vortex of the tornado — a sign of intense vertical motion and winds approaching or exceeding 130 mph.
The tornado was plowing through the Arabi neighborhood at 7:29 p.m. after having crossed the Mississippi River. It appears to have entered the Lower 9th Ward near the St. Bernard Indoor Shooting Center or just west of the railroad yard near American Sugar Refining.
A number of neighborhoods suffered heavy damage, with some homes destroyed. A “debris ball” appeared on radar near West Jackson Drive at 7:32 p.m. The the tornado headed into New Orleans East and likely weakened upon approach to Interstate 10. It’s unclear it whether crossed the highway before dissipating around 7:45 p.m.
The parent thunderstorm developed at the tail end of a cold front pushing through the area. The risk of strong tornadoes had been advertised, but the focus was farther north. However, this storm had something the others didn’t: isolation. It was a lone, discrete supercell, which allowed it to tap into the full wind shear without competing with neighbors. Unfortunately, that translated to the storm reaching its full destructive potential.
Initial social media videos indicate damage in at least the EF2 range, with an EF3 tornado or more possible. The National Weather Service in Slidell, La., said it would be dispatching personnel either late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning to survey the damage.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism