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1 dead as powerful storm hits New Orleans area, dozens of homes and business damaged

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NEW ORLEANS — A powerful storm and likely a tornado hit the New Orleans area early Tuesday, killing an elderly woman, injuring at least 16 other people, and damaging dozens of business and homes in a region still trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina.
    An 85-year-old woman died in the city’s Gentilly neighborhood, one of the areas hit hardest by Katrina 18 months earlier.
    Another storm cell hit south-central Louisiana, damaging buildings in New Iberia and on the outskirts of Breaux Bridge in St. Martin Parish, but it did less damage and there were no reports of injuries.
    In the New Orleans area, FEMA trailers were tossed around, homes collapsed, and the wind tore the roof off a hotel across the river in Westwego. At least 10 to 15 buildings were destroyed in New Orleans, said James Ross, a spokesman for Mayor Ray Nagin. Dozens of other homes and businesses were damaged in Westwego, Mayor Robert Billiot said.
    ‘‘There is just so much destruction,’’ Billiot said.
    In New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood, Stella Chambers died after the twister slammed into her FEMA trailer, ripping it and their newly renovated home apart and scattering debris about 200 feet to the Industrial Canal levee.
    Neighbor Helean Lewis said Chambers’ daughter banged on her door. ‘‘Her face and head were covered with blood. It was running down her side. She was crying and screaming, ‘Help me! I can’t find my mother!’’’ Lewis said.
    Lewis said her son went through the debris and found Chambers, still alive and crying for her daughter.
    ‘‘Her body was just all mangled,’’ Lewis said.
    In Westwego, Tanya Clark, 38, sorted through the pile of rubble that had been her home, looking for whatever she could salvage. Her left arm was in a sling because the shoulder was dislocated when the storm threw her 10 to 15 yards. Her son, Blaise, had a gash on his jaw. They hadn’t been able to find their chihuahua and two cats.
    ‘‘I just hope I don’t find my pets under all of this,’’ she said.
    Clark said she and Blaise, 17, were asleep when the tornado hit. ‘‘The saddest part, I don’t have any (homeowners) insurance any more. A single mom, and I couldn’t keep it up in the past few months,’’ she said.
    At least one nearby house was also destroyed, and a barn had been thrown into the back of a brick apartment building. Huge twisted curlicues of corrugated tin — once roofs — lay here and there.
    About 20,000 people were without power in New Orleans, Westwego, and Metairie, a spokesman for Entergy Corp. said. Public, private and parochial schools in Westwego closed for the day. Xavier University in New Orleans shut down for the day because it had no power, said spokesman Warren Bell.
    Mike Wiener, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said FEMA had assessment teams in the areas affected by the storm.
    ‘‘Right now our concern is with the safety of the travel trailer residents,’’ he said. ‘‘We’re going to get them adequate housing as soon as possible, whether it be a hotel room or another trailer.’’
    Kevin Gillespie’s trailer in Westwego was pulled five feet and shoved next to his steps so he couldn’t open the door. A FEMA trailer next door had been yanked from its moorings and flipped into his back yard, Gillespie said.
    ‘‘My next-door neighbors, they had just moved back into their house from (Hurricane) Katrina. Now it’s totaled out again,’’ he said.
    He didn’t know how badly his own belongings were damaged; a crew had only just cut off the gas. But the storm removed every vehicle he owned: ‘‘My car, pickup, motorbike and trailer all went away.’’
    Still, he said, as dawn arrived, ‘‘The more damage I see there, the more fortunate we are.’’
    At one point, emergency workers in New Orleans’ Uptown neighborhood scrambled to clear a downed magnolia tree so an ambulance could get by. A trailer serving as the fire house for the city’s Engine 12 also flipped over, injuring three firefighters.
    John Carolan, 50, who lives in the neighborhood, said he was awakened by the storm and got up in time to get into a closet with his wife.
    ‘‘Ten seconds and it was over,’’ he said.
    He said the storm blew the furniture from his porch into the street.
    Radar data provides ‘‘pretty convincing evidence there was a tornado,’’ said meteorologist Robert Ricks in the National Weather Service office in Slidell. He said the damage appeared to be from one storm cell that was behind a squall line moving east, he said.
    ‘‘It should be an improving trend the rest of the day,’’ Ricks said.
   Associated Press reporter Cain Burdeau and photographer Alex Brandon contributed.
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