Shelia and Eugene Scott never heard the “freight train” sound they expected.
It was more like a shrill whistle when the tornado barreled past the side of their home on Rev. Richard Wilson Drive in Kenner in the middle of the night, lighting up the inside of their house in strange colors and shattering one of their windows.
When it had passed, though, all they felt was relief. The Scotts, their daughter, the three firefighters in the station across the street and everyone else in the neighborhood had been spared any injuries after the third tornado in just over two years swept through Kenner early Tuesday morning.
“That,” said Shelia Scott, a school bus driver, “is the miracle of it all.”
The latest tornado — packing 110-mph winds and as wide as a football field — sprouted up on the Mississippi River and then came in over the levee protecting the southern part of Kenner, said Kenneth Graham, a meteorologist in the New Orleans office of the National Weather Service.
Graham later classified the tornado as a relatively mild 1 on the 0-to-5 Enhanced Fujita scale. It was on the ground for less than a minute and traveled less than a half-mile between 1:22 and 1:23 a.m, the National Weather Service said in a damage survey.
Even so, the tornado was strong enough to take out a commercial building and damage a handful of other structures in and around the 2000 block of Wilson Drive.
Much of the roof covering the offices of Setcom Voice and Data Networks blew into Heritage Park across the street. Part of the one-story building’s walls crumbled, and one of its air-conditioning ducts ended up draped over a power line on the other side of the street.
Graham said termites probably had softened the building up beforehand. Inspecting the scene Tuesday morning, he pointed to exposed wood beams as he snapped photographs with an iPad.
The next step for Kenner and Setcom, which owns the building, is finding out whether the structure can be repaired or if it has to be demolished, said Doug Dodt, the city’s emergency preparedness coordinator.
Setcom Vice President Chris Johnson said his company would be able to continue operating out of its offices in Baton Rouge. He said the firm would try to find temporary office space in Kenner or in nearby St. Rose because most of its clients are in the New Orleans area.
“We’re not going to let this shut down taking care of our customers and staying in business,” Johnson said.
At Kenner Fire Station No. 36 across the street, the tornado smashed a window and tore off some siding. A Fire Department supervisor and two subordinates were in the station when the tornado swirled through; no one was injured.
The firefighters realized what was going on when one of them happened to see the station’s toilet water get sucked out of the bowl, as often happens when the air pressure drops during tornadoes.
“They said it sounded like Beirut — just all kinds of noise,” said one of the firefighters’ colleagues, active Capt. Kevin Lafleur, who took over when their shift ended. “We’re grateful nobody got hurt. ... This could’ve been a lot worse.”
Officials were also assessing damage to the exterior wall and roof at the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts on Minor Street, just around the corner from the fire station and the Setcom building.
Part of a pier overlooking the river at the end of Williams Boulevard collapsed, rendering it splintered and unusable.
There also were downed tree limbs and other debris in the yards of various properties on Wilson Drive, including the house once belonging to former Jefferson Parish Sheriff Frank Clancy.
Officials were somewhat at a loss to explain why Kenner has seen three separate tornadoes since April 24, 2013, when another category 1 tornado hit the northwest part of the city. The second tornado happened just about a month ago, also in northwest Kenner.
“To my knowledge, we’re not very prone to having many types of tornado activity like this,” said Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni, who grew up in the city. “So that’s a little bit of a surprise to us. I’m just glad nobody got hurt.”
Dodt added that residents need to be as vigilant about tornadoes as they are about hurricanes, though funnel clouds don’t afford nearly as much notice as fully developed tropical systems do.
“This is something that’s significant for us,” Dodt said. “We need to be aware of it and prepared for it.”