NEW ORLEANS — Michael Baiamonte took shelter with family members in a closet in their home as the strongest tornado to hit the New Orleans area in five years took direct aim at his neighborhood.
“It was crazy,” he told the Clarion Herald, New Orleans’ archdiocesan newspaper. “It was over in four Hail Marys. That’s how I know. It took me four Hail Marys from the time we got in that closet.”
The tornado ripped through several Arabi neighborhoods March 22, killing one man, destroying 40 homes and severely damaging more than 100 others in neighborhoods submerged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The National Weather Service preliminarily classified the tornado as an EF-3, with winds ranging from 135-165 mph. It ripped through a two-mile swath of Arabi in St. Bernard Civil Parish, just east of New Orleans.
“One death is too many, but it’s a miracle we had only one death,” said Guy McInnis, the civil parish’s president. “It seems like it should have been worse.”
“It’s heartbreaking, it’s devastating,” said New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond, who toured the rubble with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards March 23. “We know the people of St. Bernard Parish are a resilient people, but they are more than that. They are people of deep faith.”
“It tells us that human life is fragile, and we don’t realize that at times,” the archbishop said. “But it’s also a reminder that in the most challenging times of life, our God is with us, and he suffers with us. I always say that the Lord Jesus had Simon to help him carry the cross, but we have one another.”
Edwards declared a state of emergency in St. Bernard Parish, although he said the level of damage to public facilities and utilities probably will fall below $7.6 million, which would trigger funds being made available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“Having said that, I have declared a state of emergency, and we’re going to do everything we can as a state to help,” Edwards said. “We’re going to have a supplemental appropriations bill that gets taken up during the legislative session, and that is funding that’s available in the current fiscal year.”
Edwards mobilized 300 Louisiana National Guardsmen to provide security and other logistical support.
Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning said assessment teams had completed nearly 90% of their work, identifying 1,100 structures, 40 of which were destroyed and 101 heavily damaged.
Edwards and Aymond walked down Benjamin Street in Arabi, where houses on one side of the street were flattened to rubble and homes on the other side of the street, while seriously damaged, were still standing.
At the end of the 90-minute tour, the archbishop prayed in a circle with the relatives of Connor Lambert, 25, an engineer with NASA at the Stennis Space Center, who was killed in the tornado. His body was found two houses away from his home.
Baiamonte, a football coach at Holy Cross High School in New Orleans, lived across the street from Lambert, a former football star at Chalmette High School who had a weight room in his home that he often allowed Baiamonte’s teenage son to use.
Baiamonte described how he, his wife, his father and his two sons scurried into a closet just off the master bedroom in their house to ride out the twister.
“Everybody was in there holding hands till the time that the house stopped shaking. Four Hail Marys, so whatever that takes,” he said.
Marianite Sister Marjorie Hebert, president and CEO of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, said the agency was ready to deploy case workers to assess the needs of the area.
“Regrettably, we’ve seen so much of it before, and I’m wondering where are the people who were once in these houses,” Hebert said. “Are there things that we at Catholic Charities could be doing for them now? We’re prepared to serve them. What we at Catholic Charities can do is to be present.
“We’ve already asked for emergency funding from Catholic Charities USA to help us get a jump start on what are the basic needs.”
At the end of his internal briefing with logical, state and federal officials, Edwards asked Aymond to offer a prayer.
The archbishop said: “Loving and faithful God, you always promise to be with us, and, in the tragic and challenging times, you promise to carry us. Give us perseverance to give us patience and to bring us a sense of comfort and peace. … And most of all, we lift to you those who have been affected — the young man who died — that he will have eternal rest.”
In 2017, a tornado with wind speeds clocked at 150 mph heavily damaged neighborhoods in New Orleans East.
Finney is executive editor/general manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.