/ 13 February 2007

Storm with possible tornado hits New Orleans

A powerful storm and likely a tornado hit the New Orleans area early on Tuesday, killing an elderly woman, injuring at least 15 other people and damaging dozens of business and homes in a region still trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

An 86-year-old woman died in the city’s Gentilly neighbourhood, one of the areas hit hardest by Katrina 18 months earlier.

In other neighbourhoods, trailers provided by the United States government’s emergency agency were tossed around, homes collapsed and the wind tore the roof off a hotel across the Mississippi River in Westwego. At least 10 structures were destroyed in New Orleans, said James Ross, a spokesperson for mayor Ray Nagin.

Dozens of other homes and businesses were damaged in Westwego, mayor Robert Billiot said. ”There is just so much destruction,” he said.

About 20 000 people were without power in New Orleans, Westwego, and Metairie, a spokesperson for Entergy said. Public, private and parochial schools in Westwego closed for the day. Xavier University in New Orleans shut down for the day because it had no power, said spokesperson Warren Bell.

Kevin Gillespie’s trailer in Westwego was 1,5m and shoved next to his steps so he could not open the door. The Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer behind his was pulled from its moorings and flipped into his back yard, Gillespie said.

”My next-door neighbours, they had just moved back into their house from [Hurricane] Katrina. Now it’s totalled out again,” he said.

He did not know how badly his own belongings were damaged; a crew had only just cut off the gas. But the storm removed every vehicle he owned: ”My car, pickup, motorbike and trailer all went away.” Still, as dawn arrived, he said: ”The more damage I see there, the more fortunate we are.”

At one point, emergency workers in New Orleans’ uptown neighbourhood scrambled to clear a downed magnolia tree so an ambulance could get by.

John Carolan (50), who lives in the neighbourhood, said he was awakened by the storm and got up in time to get into a closet with his wife. ”Ten seconds and it was over,” he said. The storm blew the furniture from his porch into the street.

Radar data provides ”pretty convincing evidence there was a tornado”, said meteorologist Robert Ricks in the National Weather Service office in Slidell. He said the damage appeared to be from one storm cell that was behind a squall line moving east, he said. ”It should be an improving trend the rest of the day,” he said. — Sapa-AP