A Union Pacific train was about to pull into a spot where it hoped to ride out severe weather passing through the New Orleans area late Monday morning when strong winds blew several of its rear cars off elevated railroad tracks in Elmwood, a Union Pacific spokesman said.
Captured on video by a television news crew, the derailment was perhaps the most dramatic moment during a forceful line of storms that caused a damaging tornado in Kenner, travel delays at Louis Armstrong International Airport and power outages for about 63,700 Entergy customers on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
Entergy said it could be a couple of days until some customers get their power back, but crews intended to work until midnight and begin again Tuesday morning.
Officials also reported a tornado at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Belle Chasse but said it did only minor damage.
Radar images suggested more bad weather could hit the area Monday night.
Nonetheless, the big story Monday was that four train cars and about a dozen shipping containers plummeted 40 feet or so to the ground from a railroad trestle leading away from the Huey P. Long Bridge. There were no injuries.
The cargo train was manned by a two-person crew and was headed from Los Angeles to the CSX Gentilly Yard in New Orleans as it passed through a section of New Orleans Public Belt Railroad track just east of the 900 block of South Clearview Parkway about 11:15 a.m., Union Pacific spokesman Jeff DeGraff said.
DeGraff said the front part of the train was about to pull off the main railroad track and onto a siding to wait out the high winds the crew had been warned about. The front of the train was about five car lengths away from entering the siding when the cars at the back were blown off the track, DeGraff said.
“Unfortunately, it just didn’t make it quite off the bridge,” he added. “We’re fortunate there were no injuries.”
The cars and containers were empty and therefore did not contain any hazardous materials, said Nancy Stoltz, a spokeswoman for the Public Belt Railroad.
The cars that were derailed were moving at about 4 mph, Jefferson Parish spokeswoman Kriss Fortunato said.
Railroad officials, Sheriff’s Office deputies and firefighters all responded to the scene to begin figuring out how to remove the fallen cars and containers as well as assess damage to the tracks.
As those efforts got underway, the general public had a pretty good idea of what happened because of video shot by a WGNO-TV photographer. The cars were moving away from the bridge amid intense rain when a strong gust knocked them off the elevated span. A nearby power transformer exploded as the cars hit the ground, and the lights in the area went out.
The photographer shot the footage from the parking lot of a Raising Cane’s chicken restaurant.
Shortly before the derailment, Karen Badeaux — the manager at the Raising Cane’s — said she and her crew were gearing up for the lunch crowd, but they paused when the winds got so strong that the doors began blowing open and then shutting on their own.
As the skies got darker and the wind picked up even more, Badeaux locked the doors and instructed her employees to gather in a bathroom.
The train cars fell as she and her crew ran for cover.
“It was pretty loud, and everybody was scared,” she said. “You could feel things shake.”
Badeaux said she learned what had happened with the train after the TV photographer went into her restaurant and told her what happened.
Power came on and went back off several times for the next couple of hours before the restaurant could return to normal business, Badeaux said.
Elsewhere, people dealt with emergencies that were less spectacular but still demonstrated the power of the system that ripped through the area.
In New Orleans, three construction workers escaped from a home near Wisner Park moments before it collapsed amid high winds.
The three men were in the process of renovating the house at Annunciation and Upperline streets as the wind picked up Monday morning, causing the structure to shake with increasing violence, said Meljen Portillo, the supervisor. The house collapsed around the workers, but none of them were hurt as they scrambled away, leaving tools behind, he said.
In Kenner, Dennis St. Lawrence said the front portion of the roof of his home in the 3500 block of Tulane Drive was torn off, and he lost part of his ceiling as well.
The National Weather Service on Monday night confirmed St. Lawrence’s home had been damaged by an EF1 tornado that also snapped wooden power poles and trees and uprooted a hardwood in front of a house on West Loyola Drive. After the winds died down, he and a neighbor covered the damaged portion of the roof with tarp.
Kenner officials said most of the wind damage there was in west-central areas of the city, including University City, the Ochsner Medical Center-Kenner and the Wal-Mart store.
At its peak, East Jefferson saw about 25,000 customers without power, according to Entergy. On the West Bank, Westwego and Gretna reported street flooding and heavy winds with minor damage.
The storm wreaked havoc on local travel plans, with 68 delays and 59 cancellations of flights in and out of Armstrong Airport by 6 p.m. The airport terminals were completely without power for more than an hour at midday, spokeswoman Michelle Wilcut said.
Emergency power was later restored. Full power came back to the airport by about 5 p.m., Wilcut said.
Even while the terminals were dark, the airfield remained operational, and some outbound flights managed to depart, Wilcut said. Some incoming flights were diverted to other cities.
A significant number of local motorists also were affected. Both the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway and the Huey P. Long Bridge were temporarily closed when the weather was at its worst Monday morning. St. Charles Parish officials said Monday evening they had closed the Bonnet Carre Spillway Road connecting Norco and Montz because of water on the roadway.
In Plaquemines Parish, officials reported a tornado at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Belle Chasse, though it did only minor damage to an awning at the front security building and did not leave the confines of the base.
Authorities reported golf ball-sized hail in the Jesuit Bend to Myrtle Groves areas in Plaquemines.
— Uptown Messenger’s Robert Morris contributed to this report.