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Louisiana digging out after tornadoes plow through homes

By Gerald Herbert and Rebecca Santana
Associated Press

ARABI, La. (AP) — Residents in the New Orleans area were digging out and assessing damage Wednesday after tornadoes lashed the region, flipping vehicles, ripping off rooftops and depositing a house with a family inside in the middle of their street.

Other tornadoes spawned by the same system caused so much damage in Texas that the governor declared a disaster in 16 counties. Buildings were shredded in Alabama, where torrential rainfall was recorded.

Two people were killed and multiple others were injured as the storm front blew across the South. The dead included a woman north of Dallas and a person in St. Bernard Parish, next to New Orleans. Authorities didn’t immediately describe how they were killed.

Planning to fly over damaged areas later Wednesday, Gov. John Bel Edwards declared an emergency in St. Bernard, Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes.

There were “no injuries, casualties or significant damage reported in Orleans Parish,” New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said Wednesday, but tornadoes touched down in Arabi, just east of the city, and further east in Lacombe, across Lake Pontchartrain.

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 early Wednesday.

“I wasn’t mentally prepared to see what I was seeing,” said Amy Sims, who jumped into her car when the tornado warning sounded and drove to the Arabi Heights area to check on relatives. She said emergency medics, some crying, were dodging live wires as they went door-to-door through shattered homes.

“A bomb looked like it had gone off,” she said, adding that her cousin’s home and family were OK, but houses all around them were flattened.

The National Weather Service said the Arabi damage had been caused by a tornado of at least EF-3 strength, meaning it had winds of 158-206 mph (254-332 km/h), while the Lacombe-area twister was an EF-1, with winds as strong as 90 mph (145 km/h).

Television stations broadcast live images as the storm damaged an area about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) long and a half-mile (0.8 kilometer) wide in St. Bernard Parish, where Ochsner Health said eight patients were treated in an emergency department.

Collin Arnold, director of homeland security and emergency preparedness in neighboring New Orleans, described “incredible devastation” in Arabi, where he said a state team including fire, EMS and police officers from across Louisiana was doing searches and damage assessments.

Louisiana activated 300 National Guard personnel to clear roads and provide support. They joined firefighters and others searching door-to-door to make sure no one had been left behind, said John Rahaim Jr., the parish’s homeland security director.

Residents of severely damaged or destroyed homes in Arabi swept up broken glass and tried to salvage their belongings. The community next to the city’s Lower 9th Ward was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and hit hard again when Hurricane Ida swept through last year.

Stacey Mancuso’s family had just finished repairing the damage from Ida, which ripped off the roof and caused extensive water damage. Huddling in the laundry room with her husband, two children and dogs, they all survived as the tornado blew away part of their new roof.

“We’re alive. That’s what I can say at this point,” said Mancuso. Still, the twister was the third time they’ve had major weather damage since Katrina.

Entergy reported that about 3,700 of its customers remained without electricity Wednesday. A strong smell of natural gas was in the air, and downed power lines forced emergency workers to walk slowly through the wreckage.

Michelle Malasovich was texting relatives from her home in Arabi when “all of a sudden the lights started flickering.” Her husband saw the twister approaching.

“It just kept getting louder and louder,” Malasovich said. After it passed, they saw some columns were blown off their porch, and her Jeep’s windows were blown out. Others fared worse: “Our neighbor’s house is in the middle of the street right now.”

The couple inside that home emerged from the wreckage seeking help to rescue their daughter, who was on a breathing machine and trapped inside, neighbors and authorities said.

“A young girl was on a ventilator, her father was looking for firefighters to come help,” St. Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis said. “And they were already in there taking care of the young lady and she’s doing fine.”

Gene Katz said he, his wife and their two children hid in a closet as the tornado pushed their home off its slab and caved in the part where they took shelter.

“By the time we closed the door, the roof came off, and that was it,” he said.

As the storm front moved eastward, an apparent twister shredded a metal building and shattered windows east of Mobile Bay. The weather service reported more than 8 inches (20 centimeters) of rainfall in the central Alabama city of Sylacauga overnight. The roofs of several homes were damaged in Toxey, Alabama, where tornado warnings were issued.

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said a dozen counties had damage to homes and two injuries were reported.

The vicious weather hit Texas on Monday, with several tornadoes reported along the Interstate 35 corridor. In Elgin, broken trees lined the rural roads and pieces of metal hung from the branches as residents stepped gingerly through the mess.

J.D. Harkins, 59, said he saw two tornadoes pass by his Elgin home.

“There used to be a barn there,” Harkins said, pointing to an empty plot on his uncle’s property, covered with debris.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said 10 people were injured by storms in the Crockett area, while more than a dozen were reportedly hurt elsewhere. The Grayson County Emergency Management Office said a 73-year-old woman was killed in Sherwood Shores, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Dallas, but provided no details.

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