Utility workers, law enforcement personnel and volunteers of every stripe turned Wednesday to the work of helping stunned residents of New Orleans East put their neighborhoods back together in the aftermath of the worst tornado to hit the city in recorded history.

Homeowners spent the day sifting through the debris that still covered many streets along a roughly two-mile stretch where the twister touched down late Tuesday morning.  

Relief groups descended on the area. Some brought meals and other supplies to the shelter on Read Boulevard where about 80 temporarily homeless residents spent Tuesday night.

Others canvassed neighborhoods to reach those trying to salvage what they could from piles of rubble. 

Word came from the National Weather Service that the tornado's winds had reached 140 mph, making it the most powerful ever recorded within Orleans Parish. 

Precious Alexander and her family were digging out the furniture from what remained of her mother's home on Perelli Drive when HOPE The Food Pantry, a local nonprofit, came by with a hot meal. 

Can't see video below? Click here.


“We’ve kind of had a restless night,” Alexander said, describing how her mother had been whipped around by the storm, which tore away the home's roof and back wall.   

“Some cold water, this hot meal — it’s a little bit of help,” she said. 

In all, seven tornadoes touched down in southeast Louisiana on Tuesday, injuring 41 people. In New Orleans, two victims remained hospitalized, but no deaths were reported.

A tornado that hit the east bank of Jefferson Parish on Tuesday packed winds of more than 65 mph but did not cause any injuries. 

In New Orleans, a swath of homes between Crowder Boulevard and Bundy Road, as well as motels and trailer parks along Chef Menteur Highway, were still reeling. Officials said roughly 300 properties were severely damaged. 

The Chef Menteur exit on Interstate 10 remained closed. Chef itself remained restricted between Ray Avenue and Read Boulevard, the city said. Vehicular traffic was also restricted in a large area from Chef to Dwyer Road and from Wilson Avenue to Bullard Avenue. National Guard soldiers checked motorists' IDs at several points.

Of the more than 10,000 Entergy New Orleans customers who initially lost power, crews had restored electricity to 6,900 by about noon Wednesday. Charles Rice, the company's CEO, said the goal was to restore power by Saturday to everyone who can accept it.

Speaking at a City Hall news conference Wednesday, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said he has asked for a federal disaster declaration, which will hinge on an ongoing damage assessment.

“Of course we think that, back of the envelope, we’re entitled to it, but we’ll fight hard for it,” Landrieu said, adding that the state's congressional delegation has pledged to help lobby for the designation. 

Federal officials will determine whether to provide the city with assistance after receiving a request from Gov. John Bel Edwards. Assistance hinges on whether a disaster is judged to be so great that it outweighs the capacity of local governments to respond.

It is not always a sure bet. Last year FEMA denied aid to residents of Assumption, St. James and St. John parishes, where a tornado in February killed two people.  

In the meantime, Landrieu said residents who need help should go to the city's shelter at Joe Brown Park, but he warned that the available assistance will be limited until the federal government intervenes. 

“This is not a FEMA-designated emergency yet, and people should not be expecting the same kind of emergency aid that they got right after Katrina, in terms of cash assistance, etc.," he said. "This is for immediate needs — for shelter, for food and clothing."

Firefighters, police officers and paramedics have completed two sweeps of 5,143 structures affected by the storm, according to the city. Landrieu said he believes that no more searches will be necessary.

Although the worst may be over, Landrieu and other officials warned that other dangers lurk in the days and weeks to come. Scam artists may try to prey on unsuspecting residents susceptible to contractor fraud. Homeowners could make mistakes in applying for insurance. Then there are the nails sticking out of all that dislodged lumber.

The mayor again asked residents from other parts of the city not to visit the East.

“There’s going to be a time when I come forward and ask you in a clarion call for everybody to go out there, and I’m going to expect everybody to show up. But today is not that day,” Landrieu said.

Although schools were largely untouched by the disaster, a few closed their doors Wednesday to assess damage. Those included three campuses in the Einstein Charter Schools network and three more in the Friends of King Schools network, as well as ReNEW Schaumburg Elementary on Grant Street.

All but Schaumburg and Einstein’s Sherwood Forest campus were expected to reopen Thursday. Sherwood Forest’s youngest students will stay home, while its third- through fifth-graders may attend school Thursday at Einstein Charter High on Michoud Boulevard, school officials said. All afterschool care programs were expected to be canceled for the rest of the week.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Michoud facility, one of the largest employers in the area, remained closed to all but security and emergency crews, who continued to survey damage. Teams worked overnight to repair the facility’s fencing, NASA officials said in a statement Wednesday.

Between 40 and 50 percent of Michoud’s buildings have some kind of damage, and the damage is severe at five buildings. The main NASA administration building, the boiler house and U.S. Coast Guard facilities are in the best condition, NASA said.

Traffic in some New Orleans East neighborhoods speeded up somewhat on Wednesday, as debris was cleared from some roads. Some Regional Transit Authority bus lines were placed back into service, though other buses and cars were rerouted, as Louisiana National Guard troops, positioned at major intersections, directed drivers away from still-devastated streets.

Landrieu said he would ask Edwards to keep the National Guard in New Orleans East until after Mardi Gras.

Wednesday, cars clustered down a road leading to the Joe Brown Park Recreation Center, the city’s makeshift shelter for dozens of victims left without habitable homes. Outside the shelter, a crowd milled around, swapping survivor stories and waiting for supplies from relief agencies.

“Hopefully they will get us like, a hotel, or something like that,” said Montreal Underwood, 25, who said the tornado damaged his apartment complex and cut off its power.

While Catholic Charities, the American Red Cross and the city’s health and fire departments worked to feed and gauge the housing needs of Underwood and other victims who showed up at the shelter, Second Harvest Food Bank and the HOPE Pantry fed others who were cleaning up debris near their homes or were staying temporarily with relatives.

The Greater New Orleans Foundation, meanwhile, launched a tornado relief fund to help nonprofits engaged in recovery work. AT&T waived cellphone overage charges for customers in affected areas, and two churches, City Church and Household of Faith on the Interstate 10 Service Road, collected clothing, toiletries and non-perishable food for victims.

All cleanup and relief work was being done under the watchful eyes of the Police Department, whose officers were making regular patrols to ward off looters.

While police arrested a man they said was caught breaking into the safe of a damaged discount cellphone store on Chef Menteur Highway, there were no reports of widespread looting, Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said.  

But at least one business owner, Abdel Saleh, said his convenience store was hit. Saleh, 38, said he was inside the store, Sam’s Food and Liquor, when the tornado sheared off its roof. An employee and five customers were also there as food began flying off the shelves.

“It was like something unbelievable," Saleh said. "I thought I was gonna die.”

When he came back Wednesday morning to survey his business, he found that looters had hopped over his now roofless walls overnight to steal Courvoisier, Hennessy and cigarettes.

Over on Read Boulevard, Linda Davis also fretted about potential plunderers, and the weather, as she and her family worked through the morning Wednesday to put her belongings in a U-haul truck.

The twister tore through walls on two sides of Davis’ home and exposed her attic to the air. When a friend called to see how she made out in the storm, she had a simple answer. “Terrible. If you see this house, terrible. The whole house is just destroyed,” she said.

Davis said she did not have insurance on the house. She is 62, a sitter for the elderly, and had spent much of her life savings buying the house, she said.

This is second time Davis has been through a disaster in New Orleans East. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, she left for rural Louisiana, then Dallas, before returning to the neighborhood in 2009.

Like many of those most affected, Davis is only beginning to come to terms with what promises to be a long recovery process. She said that for now, she hopes the city will provide tarpaulins and dumpsters so that she and her family can continue their cleanup.

The city said Wednesday that firefighters will be passing out tarps door-to-door.

In the long run, Davis hopes that some type of disaster aid will be forthcoming.

“I haven’t heard anything yet,” she said. “(It’s) very important if I can get any kind of assistance.”

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432