This antique shop owner is familiar with loss. In post-tornado St. Bernard, she isn't alone.
Lynda Catalanotto stood inside what was left of Old Arabi Marketplace, her antique store on St. Claude Avenue in St. Bernard Parish, the morning after an EF3 tornado touched down and tore up structures in a handful of blocks in Arabi.
The windows and doors were blown out and the back of the L-shaped building caved in due to the 160 mph twister.
“We have significant roof damage, so we’re praying for no rain,” Catalanotto said. “We can’t have rain because then it would destroy the rest of the store.”
Elsewhere, homes were torn apart, vehicles were flipped, trees were uprooted and the street was filled with debris. The tornado took the life of one resident, a 25-year-old man, and injured several more.
The following day, the scene in Arabi was of people already rebuilding or relocating: a couple loaded their belongings into a UHaul while their neighbors trimmed branches with chainsaws. One home had been lifted and shifted dozens of feet, while another had been deposited in the middle of the street.
Back at Catalanotto’s store, more than a third of the 6,000-square-foot-space is completely destroyed. Priorities for the day included covering the gaping window frames with plywood, bracing the remaining walls and assessing plans for a new roof.
While salvage experts did their work, Catalanotto and friends sifted through the rubble looking for antiques to salvage: a dark wood sideboard, crystal dishes, lamp shades and throw pillows.
Catalanotto thinks at least 20% of her merchandise was lost to the storm.
“A lot of breakage because we have a lot of glass,” Catalanotto, a lifelong resident of St. Bernard Parish, said. “But we’re steadily cleaning and we will rebuild. St. Bernard does that.”
St. Bernard Parish was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina more than a decade ago and before that by Betsy. There have been oil spills and other storms since then, including Hurricane Ida last August.
After every disaster, the community rebuilds, but for Catalanotto, coming back from this one will be harder. She lost her husband to COVID three weeks ago.
“The first thing I did was blame him for not protecting me, which he always did,” she said.
Her home, which is located a few blocks behind the shop, was thankfully spared, though she does have parts and pieces of other people’s houses strewn in her yard.
When the tornado first hit, she was angry. She questioned why God would give her more than she could handle.
“I was strong through [my husband's] illness and death, and I'm going to remain strong,” she said. “I don’t know when I’m gonna break, but it’s probably not long from now. I’m trying not to cry.”
Catalanotto answers questions and directs volunteers as she weaves her way through the dark toward the back of the store. She’s more concerned that the building could come down if they don’t move fast.
Men on step ladders remove chandeliers and carved chairs hanging from ceiling hooks. On top of a white dresser lies a coffee table book with a picture of the Mississippi River.
Catalanotto’s husband isn’t here, but she isn’t alone. More than a dozen friends have shown up to help, and people keep stopping in to say hello.
“I've got neighbors, customers, shopkeepers, people I don't even know,” she said. “It's remarkable. St. Bernard is a good community.”
Catalanotto hopes to open the front part of her store in a week if power is restored. A nearby substation was severely damaged in the storm, and nearly 1,700 customers in St. Bernard were still without power as of Thursday morning, down from a high of 3,000.
She wants to reopen the store for herself, but also for the community. Her customers are her neighbors and friends, and with so much damage, many will be looking to replace items lost in the storm.
“It’s a beautiful store if I say so myself,” she said. “It’s always amazing when someone walks in the door from Uptown or Metairie and says, ‘I can’t believe this is in St. Bernard.’”
She said it’s an insult and a compliment, and she enjoys proving them wrong.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has issued a state emergency declaration for areas impacted by the tornadoes, but it’s unclear whether the damage is significant enough to qualify for federal disaster aid.
Edwards said Wednesday he does not think the state experienced the $7.6 million of damage to infrastructure to qualify for public assistance from FEMA. That means the state may need to cover the cost of debris removal and other recovery efforts on its own.
Fortunately, the state has excess funds lawmakers are set to appropriate during this spring’s legislative session, and the Small Business Administration could still offer federal assistance in the form of low-interest loans for storm victims.
Regardless of whether the funds come from the government or insurance companies, Catalanotto said she knows residents will figure out a way to recover.
"It’s gonna all come back,” she said. “New homes will be built, and businesses are going to reopen."