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New Orleans gets hit again

A woman is killed and newly rebuilt homes are damaged as storms, including an apparent tornado, strike the area.

February 14, 2007|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — A cluster of storms, including an apparent tornado, struck the New Orleans area early Tuesday, killing an elderly woman and causing widespread damage, in some cases to houses newly rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina.

City officials said Stella Chambers, 86, died when the reported twister picked up the Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer she was living in and slammed it through her newly renovated home in the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood. Chambers was tossed from the trailer and later died at a local hospital, officials said.

Several homeowners said the latest calamity had crushed their resolve to stay in the city.

"I don't think I'm going to try to do anything else. I'm ready to be done with it now," said Raymond Simoneaux, who had almost finished renovating his double-fronted two-story rental property in the badly hit Carrollton neighborhood.

The tornado demolished the building's first floor. "To get to this point and have it ripped from under us.... I'm just ready to quit," Simoneaux said.

At least two other storm cells hit parts of south-central Louisiana and Pearl River County in neighboring Mississippi, according to preliminary reports by weather service officials.

"We believe them to be tornadoes," said Paul Trotter, meteorologist in charge at the New Orleans/Baton Rouge National Weather Service Office in Slidell, La.

Trotter said that meteorologists were investigating some of the worst damage in the town of Westwego in metropolitan New Orleans' Jefferson Parish, where the tornado first touched down. It peeled the roof from a motel and hurled debris several blocks away. It also flattened several houses and turned trailers into hunks of bent metal.

The twister then headed east, leaving a trail of destruction through several New Orleans neighborhoods. At least a dozen people were hurt.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who toured the damaged areas by air Tuesday morning, said the twister appeared to have touched down in four or five different spots throughout the city.

Nagin said he had declared a state of emergency, the first step toward obtaining federal disaster assistance.

About 30,000 households were initially left without power, several schools were closed, and area hospitals brought in additional staff, city officials said.

A Red Cross shelter was set up, offering accommodation for 50 people, and bottled water, military meals and hot lunches to residents without power or left homeless by the tornado.

Shortly after the tornado hit between 3 and 4 a.m., law enforcement personnel blocked access to vulnerable neighborhoods and activated anti-looting units, said Police Supt. Warren J. Riley.

He told reporters that there were no immediate arrests or reports of looting.

"We have lived through hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and [have learned] some very valuable lessons," Nagin told reporters at a curbside news briefing. "We have everything deployed in an expeditious manner and we ... are on top of this situation."

Simoneaux, the Carrolton property owner, was asleep in a trailer next to the house when he was awakened by a deafening roar.

When he went to look out the window, a gust of wind propelled him back, and the house collapsed onto the trailer, crushing the furniture, rupturing the interior and leaving ceiling insulation exposed. With the door jammed, Simoneaux crawled through a window to escape. His stepfather, who was sleeping in the house, fled through a side window.

Simoneaux then kicked in the door of a neighboring house to free two elderly women trapped there. He spent Tuesday morning salvaging belongings from his trailer before taking off to find temporary refuge at a hotel.

A block away, along streets littered with corrugated iron, Sheetrock, glass shards and exposed power lines, Kynisha Martin stood on the sidewalk mesmerized by a huge uprooted tree that had smashed into the roof of her two-story apartment building. She and her two preteen children had hidden in a closet.

"I'm in awe," Martin said as she took digital photos of the devastation on her block. "I have no words."

Tears overcame Carrollton resident Nolan Albert.

"I cried this morning," Albert said as he examined his shattered car, and the broken windows and roof damage to his 1900s cypress wood townhouse that he had spent about $100,000 to repair after Hurricane Katrina. "My first reaction was to give up. But I'm not going to give up. Tornados can hit anywhere."

Two firefighters were slightly injured when the trailer that had provided temporary shelter for Fire House Engine 12 flipped over.

City officials said they expected most of the debris to be cleared from the streets, and all electricity and phone service to be restored, by Tuesday evening.

"We won't have to deal with water," said Riley, the police chief. "We know that it's basically over. It's nothing to compare with what we went through with Katrina."

ann.simmons@latimes.com

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