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State emergency declaration issued, but federal aid may be unlikely, after tornadoes hit Louisiana

Corky Potts looks through all the rubble in Arabi, LA on Wednesday morning.
Patrick Madden
Corky Potts looks through all the rubble in Arabi, LA on Wednesday morning.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has issued a state emergency declaration in response to the two tornadoes that ripped through St. Bernard Parish and other parts of metro New Orleans on Tuesday night.

But as Edwards toured the devastation wrought in Arabi, he warned that the damage sustained may not be sufficient to trigger a federal disaster declaration that would pave the way for an influx of disaster aid.

According to the National Weather Service, at least two tornadoes touched down in southeast Louisiana, including a severe EF3 class tornado with 136-165 mph winds. The storm claimed the life of one 25-year-old man and hospitalized eight others.

St. Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis confirmed the death of an Arabi resident at about 9:45 p.m Tuesday. Edwards said he expects the death toll to hold at one, but warned that recovery efforts can be just as dangerous as the storm itself. He urged people without power to use caution when operating generators and encouraged everyone to be aware of the risk posed by downed power lines and gas leaks.

Preliminary damage assessments continue, but in a press conference shortly after noon, Edwards said at least 600 structures were reported damaged.

“Unfortunately, our people have become all too familiar with rebuilding after tragedy and loss, but it is never easy,” Edwards said in a statement announcing the declaration. “My prayers are with everyone who is hurting because of these tornadoes toda,y and I have pledged to local leaders that we will be here to support their long-term recovery efforts.”

Entergy reports that more than 2,300 customers in St. Bernard Parish are still without power as of 3:15 p.m. Edwards said he expects power to be restored more quickly than it would after a hurricane because there are fewer outages to deal with, and weather and road conditions allow line crews to begin work quickly.

The National Weather Service confirmed that two tornadoes touched down in southeast Louisiana. Three NWS survey teams will determine whether additional tornadoes were a factor.

After early conversations with the White House and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell, Edwards said the federal government stands ready to deliver all the financial assistance the state qualifies for.

During his afternoon press conference, Edwards said he does not think the state experienced the $7.6 million of damage to infrastructure that would qualify it for public assistance from FEMA. That may leave the state to cover the cost of debris removal and other expensive disaster recovery efforts without federal assistance, something the state is well-positioned to do, given the unprecedented excess funds lawmakers are set to appropriate during this spring’s legislative session.

In the absence of a federal disaster declaration, the Small Business Administration could offer some federal assistance in the form of low-interest loans for storm victims.

“We’re going to find the quickest way to deliver the assistance needed here,” Edwards said.

With the prospect of federal assistance in doubt, storm victims will rely more heavily on insurance companies to cover the cost of damage to their homes. Slow response times and low damage estimates mired recovery efforts after Hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020 and Hurricane Ida last year.

Edwards called on insurance companies to “do the right thing,”

“Just give the people the benefit of the premium dollars that they pay for, treat them with respect and conduct themselves in good faith,” Edwards said. “I expect they’ll do that, and there is absolutely no excuse not to do it in this situation because we don’t have tens of thousands of claimants.”

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.

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