Alyssa Wineski stood at her kitchen island Wednesday morning, the sun beaming down on her from where the ceiling and southern wall of her Arabi home used to be.
Friends and family buzzed about, emptying shelves of anything that could be salvaged. But Wineski knew that she and her family had made it through the powerful tornado that tore through their Benjamin Street neighborhood Tuesday night with the thing that mattered most: their lives.
“Though everything seems to be falling apart and we have no roof and our things are destroyed, I’m so grateful to be alive,” she said. “Because my husband and my son and I barely made it to safety, we lost a friend next door … so, we’re just happy to be alive.”
That friend, Connor Lambert, a 25-year-old who died of multiple blunt-force injuries when his house was obliterated, was the one confirmed death during the EF3 tornado that cut Arabi in two before crossing the water and plowing through New Orleans East. Eight others were injured enough to require hospital attention, Gov. John Bel Edwards said.
The winds of up to 165 mph left a trough of destruction that residents could only begin to grasp when the sun rose up Wednesday: trees and utility poles knocked over, homes with their roofs torn off, overturned cars and school buses.
The worst was along Friscoville Avenue, St. Claude Heights and Benjamin Street.
State Fire Marshal Butch Browning estimated that more than 150 homes along a two-mile swath had suffered significant or catastrophic damage.
“When you see it in the light of day … ” Friscoville resident Michelle O’Neill said, her voice trailing off. “There are no words.”
But as the day wore on, St. Bernard Parish residents filled that trough with love, support, and community, as neighbors carved up downed tree limbs and friends helped gather belongings and haul away debris. And there were hugs. Lots of hugs.
“It’s just stuff,” O’Neill said of her losses. “It can be replaced.”
The push and pull of disaster and recovery has become all too common in a parish where some of the homes still bear the spray painted “X” mark of Hurricane Katrina.
“To see our community that’s been destroyed so many times before,” Wineski said. “We’re all people who have gone through Katrina — we went through the flood in Denham Springs — we’ve all been through horrible events but this is not anything we thought we’d ever experience in our entire lives.”
For all the expressions of relief and gratitude, there was grief and trauma. And for every hug, there was a tale of a mad dash to a bathroom or closet, children frantically scooped up and grabbed by the wrist and pets that couldn’t be gathered in time.
Jessica and Gene Katz were sitting on their couch with their two children when Gene noticed the wind was no longer gusting, but droning continuously.
He ordered the family into a small closet, and before Jessica could pull the door shut, the pressure slammed it in their faces. Then the roof blew off.
“As soon as the door shut, (the room) just opened up,” Gene said.
On Benjamin Street, Wineski had just finished bathing her 1-year-old son, Elliot, and had him swaddled in a towel when her husband, Benjamin, barreled through the door.
“We tried to get our (three) dogs in the bathroom, we couldn’t, he slammed the door and jumped on top of us,” she said. A small window shattered, sending glass swirling around them.
“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced in my entire life,” she said. “I’ll never forget the sound. I’ll never forget the feeling of wind from all directions pushing against us. I just can’t believe we’re alive.”
Across the street, Michael Baiamonte left the bathroom closet where he had been uttering frantic Hail Marys to find much of his roof had been torn off. He looked across the street at Connor Lambert’s house.
“It was gone,” Baiamonte said. “We went over there and started screaming his name.”
Lambert’s family did not speak with the media and declined the opportunity to speak with the governor as he toured the neighborhood with Archbishop of New Orleans Gregory Aymond.
“He always had a smile on his face,” Wineski said of Lambert, who invited his neighbors to a housewarming party when he moved in about a year ago. “He just seemed like the kindest person.”
Edwards spoke with several residents along Benjamin Street Wednesday afternoon. He said he was sorry to see people under such circumstances, but was impressed by how they immediately leapt to aid each other.
“The lesson we can take from this is what it means to be neighbors to one another,” Edwards said.
Benjamin Street appeared to have gotten the worst of the tornado that the National Weather Service said took an 11-mile route from Gretna, across the Mississippi River into Arabi, then through the marsh to New Orleans East.
New Orleans officials reported no casualties and limited residential damage in New Orleans East. Mayor LaToya Cantrell said she would declare a state of emergency out of an abundance of caution, and to avail the city of “any federal resources that we will be eligible for.”
Fewer than 50 homes in New Orleans East were affected, nearly all of them receiving only minor damage. Only a half dozen homes had suffered major roof damage, officials said.
The same storm system that pounded Arabi spun a separate tornado that came ashore in St. Tammany Parish near Fontainebleau State Park. That twister took a 12-mile route through a sparsely-populated section of east-central St. Tammany.
Back in Arabi, Dave Dessens, who lives on Friscoville Avenue, surveyed the massive hole in his roof from his front yard in the early-morning chill.
“This is just a house; it’s not us,” he said.
Gene and Jessica Katz vowed to rebuild their home, a gift from Jessica’s mother after Katrina.
This time, at least, the disaster was a relatively dry one, and Jessica said she’ll at least be able to salvage more than the single box of items spared by the 2005 hurricane. The box, she said, still smells like water when you open it.
“We’re safe and healthy,” she said. “We had to start over once before. So this time, at least, I can go through some of my things and grab my pictures and stuff like that, you know.”