New Orleans is no stranger to tragic weather

From hurricanes to floods to tornadoes, the Big Easy has a tumultuous weather history

NEW ORLEANS – With a population of about 400,000, New Orleans is the largest city in Louisiana, but the Big Easy has a very uneasy relationship with Mother Nature.

That is evidenced by a powerful tornado that swept through the eastern side of the city on Tuesday night. It killed one person and left the Arabi neighborhood and parts of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward in shambles.

Outside of the city’s tornadic history, it also has had scores of run-ins with hurricanes and tropical storms. More than 100 tropical systems have crisscrossed the New Orleans area since 1852.

The most recent one to affect the city was Hurricane Ida last year. While hardest-hit areas were away from New Orleans, the storm did batter the city with wind and heavy rain. Hurricane Zeta, late in the 2020 season, was the last tropical cyclone to pass directly over the city.

For most Americans, though, it’s Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that springs to mind when talking about New Orleans and storms. Its eye passed to the east of New Orleans, but the storm pushed a wall of water over and through levees that were built to protect the city.

Situated on the banks of the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans is also one of the most vulnerable cities in Louisiana when big storms hit. Much of the city, outside of manmade levees, is between 2 and 3 feet below sea-level. Some places are as much as 6 feet below sea level.

During Katrina, storm surge combined with water from breeched levees to cover 80% of the New Orleans with several feet of water. More than 1,000 people are believed to have died as a result of the storm, and thousands of people were left without homes. 

Some of the deepest water was found in the Lower Ninth Ward and Arabi.

"This is PTS for those folks," said Edward Branley, who has lived in NOLA most of his life and has written six books about the city’s history. "There’s no doubt about it."

Branley said that even 16 years after Katrina, these neighborhoods are still trying to recover from the devastation that was wrought by the hurricane.

"You could almost feel the tension last night," Branley said. "Even just watching Twitter, folks that live down that way, and it’s like, ‘Oh, please, not again.’"

Branley said, for him, tornadoes are scarier than hurricanes because you typically see hurricanes coming, but tornadoes are much more unpredictable. That’s a sentiment shared by at least one Arabi resident, who FOX Weather’s Mitti Hicks found assessing damage from Tuesday’s tornado.

"This is worse," said Patricia Noote, who has lived in Arabi for 22 years. "We had water for a hurricane, but this is worse. We had the wind and everything."

For Timothy O’Neill, another resident of Arabi who survived Tuesday’s tornado, the recurring weather tragedies have made for a tight-knit community.

"I don’t want to say that we’re used to it, but, everyone, the whole point is that you pull together," O’Neill told FOX Weather’s Robert Ray. "This is a community where neighbors help neighbors and that’s really what gets it done."

The National Weather Service has given a preliminary rating of EF-3 to the Arabi tornado, meaning it had winds of at least 136 mph. A final report is expected to be completed in the next few days.