'It’s pretty much unlivable': Lake Charles finds itself on the brink after Hurricane Laura
LAKE CHARLES, La. — They once called this part of the state No Man’s Land, a place that belonged to no laws or country while boundaries between Spanish-ruled Texas and Louisiana were being officially drawn.
After Hurricane Laura, the strongest storm to hit the Louisiana coast in 164 years, Lake Charles once again feels like a city hanging in limbo.
Trees clog roads. Leaking natural gas taints neighborhoods with a chemical stench. The city is without water and so many power poles are snapped and laying across roads, it’s easier to count the ones that aren’t.
A mandatory evacuation emptied most of the city before Laura’s 150 mph winds early Thursday ripped off brick facades and pushed the Isle Capri Casino barge into the Interstate 10 bridge. Two days later, the number of residents are still vastly outnumbered by recovery volunteers and emergency officials.
“It’s a ghost town. It’s catastrophic,” said Romiro Ramirez, owner of a Houston demolition company who hopped in his truck with generators, chainsaws and waters hours after Laura crushed Lake Charles. He spent Thursday clearing roads. “You can’t stay there overnight because there’s no utilities whatsoever. They’re back to being primitive until lights and water get connected. Without those it’s pretty much unlivable.”
For travelers, Lake Charles is the halfway point between New Orleans and Houston, a place to rest from a road trip or visit for Mardi Gras. For locals, it’s the 12th largest port city in the nation, a boom-or-bust economy of casinos and oil and gas refineries that, after the bust of Hurricane Rita in 2005, had been noticeably booming, said Jim Beam, a columnist who’s worked at the local newspaper The American Press since 1961.
Beam lost family members to Hurricane Audrey, which hit the area in 1957. And he lived through the devastation of Rita. But he said the third chapter in Lake Charles' history of hurricanes may be the toughest to endure.
“This is the worst storm that’s hit us in my lifetime," Beam said. "It’ll be a longer impact than anything I’ve seen."
One of those working to mitigate the impact of the storm is Denise Durel, a Lake Charles resident and president of the United Way of Southwest Louisiana.
While Durel was driving west toward Lake Charles with an ice chest of frozen water bottles Friday, a tanker truck of water was driving eastward from Texas to connect to living facilities for volunteer workers.
“Securing water is our first critical thing. All these groups have mobile bathrooms and kitchens, but if you don’t have water it doesn’t matter,” Durel said. “They may be able to sleep in the church, but if we don’t have the facilities for them, they’re not going to come.”
The lack of water and power is the reason Mayor Nic Hunter is encouraging residents to stay away from the city as much as possible.
“Look and leave truly is the best option for many,” Hunter wrote in a Facebook post.
Mila Robicheaux Heldt is one of those who visited her home the day after the storm.
Heldt had evacuated with her three sons. She took her grandfather’s china set and rocking chair with them. She tucked a quilt her grandmother made from her baby clothes into a bathtub in case of flooding.
When Heldt arrived home Thursday, her house smelled of musty, wet sheetrock. Water had come in through the roof and broken windows. Her fence was knocked to the ground. A piece of plywood from a neighbors house had been whipped at her house so hard, it left what looked like a “bullet hole” in the wall.
Still, Heldt was thankful.
“We had comparatively, minimal damage. Getting a new roof and cutting out sheetrock sounds like a lot, but the house next to me had even more damage,” Heldt said.
In the southward part of Lake Charles, Patricia Wade had ridden out the storm with her husband and some friends. When the eyewall passed over between 1-2 a.m., the gusting winds threw open her French doors, and they spent an hour leaning against a table trying to hold them shut.
While her house sustained some damage, Wade was reduced to tears when she saw the hurricane had grabbed her son’s garage and bent it upward, peeling the roof off like it was a can of sardines.
“I’m really shocked about how much damage there is. I don’t know what I’m feeling right now. I’m so tired,” Ward said. “You see it on TV, but you never expect to see it in real life.”
The few residents seen in the communities filling boxes or clearing branches are clearly storm weary. But there are also signs of the grit and resolve needed to rebuild.
Before she left, Heldt and her sons had decorated their sandbags. Some had her twins’ handprints to commemorate their first hurricane. Others spelled out “Laura eats cauliflower boudin,” a popular Louisiana taunt usually reserved for Alabama football coach Nick Saban.
In other neighborhoods, ratchet straps tied vans beneath carports or fastened roofs to trees, signs that locals will do just about anything to keep their homes from blowing away.
“I honestly believe it’s just going to be rebuilding and rebuilding it better,” Heldt said. “I’m sure some people may move and not come back, but a lot of people love this city and will come back for the reasons we were there in the first place. The food, family and community, that’s what we’re there for. That’s why we take on these hurricanes.”
The road to recovery is an uncertain one.
Mayor Hunter said the city cannot estimate when utilities will be restored.
Durel estimated that, similar to Rita, it would take the city two years or so to recover.
“When you start using the words 'long-term recovery,' the word 'long' is there for a reason,” Durel said.
But unlike usual hurricanes, the impact of Laura will be exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19 and compounded by Lake Charles’ high poverty rate.
Larger chain stores will build again, but that will be harder for smaller, locally owned shops and nearly impossible for the 46 percent of the city that Durel said is struggling to make ends meet, according to the United Way’s ALICE report.
Still, in a city whose generations are defined by the hurricanes they endured, Durel and others have faith that the city will recover.
“That’s what’s going to get us through the next chapter of dealing with Hurricane Laura: Our community stepping up and saying, ‘I’m going to help you before I help myself,’” Durel said. “That’s what we’re anticipating happening because it always does.”