Part of Lake Charles, Louisiana, Is Gone A community tries to hold on after hurricanes, floods, a cold snap, and COVID.

(Photo by John Griswold)

Jade Miller, a Project Manager for the Calcasieu Parish Hurricane Debris Removal Program, got out of his government Jeep at the Chevron station to greet me, out where East McNeese Street dead-ends with Route 397. We were five miles southeast of downtown Lake Charles, Louisiana. The landscape is savannah—a grassy plain cut by streams, with few trees—and between here and the Gulf of Mexico, 30 miles to the south, there is little else, other than a few hamlets and cattle put out to graze.

But the station was kept busy with deeply-tanned, veiny guys in clothes soaked with sweat, for whom a couple of minutes in the air-conditioning, while paying for gas, Gatorade, and cooler sandwiches, was a break from the subtropical heat and humidity. The roads around the station were heavy with trucks and dust.

I had asked Miller where the not-insignificant portion of the mass of the City of Lake Charles went, after Hurricane Laura laid waste to the city in August, and the damage was compounded by Hurricane Delta in October, an ice storm in February, and a flood in May. Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter had told me there were “two Superdomes” of debris from his city alone—not just enough to cover their floors, but to fill their entire volumes to the peaks.

There was so much stuff, in fact—massive sea pines, century-old pin oaks, root balls removed by cranes, brick walls, roof trusses, hillocks of shingles, wall framing, city wiring and phone poles, half the glass from a short skyscraper, furniture, mattresses, carpeting, sodden papers, refrigerators and other appliances, household chemicals, tons of rotting food—that both Mayor Hunter and Bryan Beam, the Calcasieu Parish Administrator (think county commissioner), told me they did not know where it all went.

Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter had told me there were “two Superdomes” of debris from his city alone—not just enough to cover their floors, but to fill their entire volumes to the peaks.

Now Miller pointed across 397 to a landfill just visible in the haze. Dump trucks streamed in and out on its access road, and I had to squint to see two long mounds of fresh dirt, several stories tall, that looked like Paleo-Indian earthworks. Miller said there were four such landfills around town, which now held 225,000 truckloads of “vegetative” and “construction and demolition” (C&D) hurricane debris from the city and parish.

I wondered how it all fit. Miller explained that it had been “reduced” first, at temporary staging areas, so it took up less room and cost less to dump. It was a lot of debris, he said—14 million cubic yards in the parish, including the cities—but they were “handling it.”

“It’s making some big hills, you know?” he said in his Acadiana accent. “You got plenty of area to go vertical.” He laughed, waving at the enormous blue sky. “So long as you got a little bit of footprint, you can keep going up.”

 

•  •  •

 

(Photo by John Griswold)

The removal, reduction, and dumping of “road debris”—almost anything that could be piled near roads for pickup after hurricanes—was a Herculean effort, and only one aspect of Lake Charles’ ongoing recovery. Bryan Beam told me that his Public Works Director, an engineer, did an informal calculation after Hurricane Laura and determined that if every Public Works employee was put to work on nothing but debris removal, during every regular business hour, it would take eight to 10 years to clear the road debris. Even that seems optimistic.

But most of that removal was accomplished in seven months, a triumph of sorts, which required tremendous organization, labor, resources, and money—especially money, which made the other things possible. And most of the money was federal, so the cost was spread around to all of us.

In Louisiana’s future, the EPA says, there will be “retreating shores,” stronger and more frequent hurricanes, more flooding, more heat than ever, and reduced crop and fishery yields. And as disasters linked to climate change increase in scale and number, we can all expect to pay for them, with interrupted commerce and supply lines, higher insurance rates, and more federal aid for recoveries like this one.

 

•  •  •

 

Lake Charles has 77,000 residents—the metro area about 200,000—or did, before the storms destroyed thousands of housing units and drove so many people out that there is a severe labor shortage. The Lake area serves the global petrochemical industry and has a deepwater seaport with a Coast Guard and Homeland Security presence.

The city sits at only 15 feet of elevation and is riven with water in swales, ditches, and bayous. The land between it and the Gulf is a lacework of earth and water and is “sinking faster than any coast on the planet.”

Southwest Louisiana has been hit, historically, by innumerable tropical storms and hurricanes. Some of those were killers that raced up the low-lying savannah and the ship channel into Calcasieu Parish. So many died in Hurricane Audrey, in 1957, that there are two mass graves in Lake Charles for unidentified victims.

Severe damage, to a city situated as this one is, is a certainty, eventually, and Lake Charles and the parish now have “pre-contracts” with “specialty disaster management companies” to save time after storms, since recovery efforts must begin immediately to prevent civil disorder, accidents, vermin, and disease.

Mayor Hunter told me, “That is a lesson learned from Hurricane Rita in 2005, having these contracts pre-approved before a storm even hits. [W]hen our contractors knew that the storm [Laura] was on its way, they pre-positioned their forces.

“They came in like an army,” he said. “While you’re in the middle of it, it’s very emotional to see a lot of debris on the side of the road. But when you think about the amount that they picked up, it’s pretty spectacular.”

Severe damage, to a city situated as this one is, is a certainty, eventually, and Lake Charles and the parish now have “pre-contracts” with “specialty disaster management companies” to save time after storms, since recovery efforts must begin immediately to prevent civil disorder, accidents, vermin, and disease.

The current contracts are with CrowderGulf, which has its corporate headquarters in Mobile, Alabama, and with Tetra Tech, a global consulting and engineering corporation out of Pasadena, California. CrowderGulf provides the labor and machines. Tetra Tech provides monitoring of the entire process, required by federal regulations.

Disaster administration is also organized ahead of time. Bryan Beam told me that FEMA’s National Incident Management System makes local governments responsible during incidents—state and federal entities play supporting roles—and that the Louisiana Disaster Act of 1993 requires each parish to have a Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, since it may need to respond to anything from hurricanes to forest fires to “any type of industrial accident.”

After storms in 2002, Calcasieu also formed an Executive Policy Group (EPG) comprising the parish, police jury (county commission), six mayors of municipalities in the parish, and the Sheriff, to share information and help make decisions about voluntary or mandatory evacuation, sheltering, and other issues. (“We don’t send police to peoples’ homes and drag them out, but we say, ‘Don’t fool around, get out,’” Beam said.)

Beam said Hurricane Laura was unusual because it did not give the usual notice. It was in the Gulf as a Category 2, “significant, but not one we typically recommend evac for, and we did not.” A day later it grew to Category 3, then Category 4.

The EPG “immediately recommended a mandatory evac,” he said. Laura “hit here as a 4, bordering Cat 5, one of the 10 strongest storms to hit the US, ever. Tied, if you will, with the strongest to hit Louisiana, in 1856.” He said Laura was “kind of eerie, actually: almost the exact width of this parish, and it got it all.”

“Hurricane Rita was very strong in 2005, and it was a big storm,” Beam said. “And I think we thought, ‘This is what you compare it to,’ but this was much worse. So, you’ve got this situation where [we had] extreme damage to homes, businesses, hospitals, everything. We knew it wasn’t going to be a short recovery period.”

Mayor Hunter told me, “The length of time it takes [for recovery], and the level of resiliency will depend greatly on whether or not the federal government responds to help Americans here in southwest Louisiana. What we have received have definitely been punches to the gut, but they’re not knockout punches for the City of Lake Charles.”

 

•  •  •

 

Laura alone did $19 billion in damage to southwest Louisiana and east Texas on August 27, 2020. It left tens of thousands without potable water and nearly 900,000 in the region without power. A large chlorine plant on the other side of the lake from the city of Lake Charles burned down and poured toxic smoke for days. (Air-quality monitors stopped working, along with everything else.) The Governor of Louisiana attributed 28 deaths to the storm.

As I have written before about Lake Charles, recovery starts immediately, at dawn. It is a hardworking community, whose people own and know how to use tools, machines, and vehicles.

But there was too much, and Lake Charles was still a debris field when the next storm, Hurricane Delta, hit just six weeks later, on October 9, pouring more water into roofless buildings, flooding low-lying areas—worse this time—and blowing existing debris around to cause more damage. With the ground saturated, some trees that had not blown over in Laura pulled from the mud, fell on buildings and cars, and snapped more water pipes.

“You’ve got folks getting numb,” he [Alberto Galan] said. “You go to work, and you’re working on recovery . . . then you go home to a house that’s gutted, and you’re sitting in that same environment. […] It’s wakeup to sundown you’re recovering.”

In February, record cold burst more pipes, causing low water pressure, again, and there were more power outages, and more danger for those without adequate housing.

Then, a rain storm in May dumped 12 to 15 inches of water in about six hours, as much as some areas of the Plains see in a year. Water rose into homes, again, and in many places ruined repairs from previous storms, so those materials ended up on the curb too. One can imagine having to deal with insurance companies for repeat damage, with multiple adjusters.

Alberto Galan, Bryan Beam’s assistant in charge of long-term recovery for the parish, told me, “The ups and downs are tough for a lot of people, and you see that in people’s faces sometimes around the community.”

“You’ve got folks getting numb,” he said. “You go to work, and you’re working on recovery . . . then you go home to a house that’s gutted, and you’re sitting in that same environment. […] It’s wakeup to sundown you’re recovering.”

Beam reminded me that the fifth disaster in the last year for southwest Louisiana was COVID, which it shared with the world. Businesses closed here as they did everywhere, but then came the storms, and recovery had to take place “at a time when COVID was at an all-time high.” This made it risky for people to shelter together, for administrators to assemble in rooms, and for laborers to work in groups.

The sum of this trauma is “harder to measure,” he said, “but it is definitely there.”

Elsewhere, he said, “COVID precautions are difficult but can be a focus.” Here, the “immediate needs of people—sanitary, water, sewer, power, safety, roofs” had to come first.

 

•  •  •

 

In the couple of days after Laura struck, a number of things began to happen simultaneously. The National Guard arrived almost immediately and began to push debris to the side of roads, help keep order, and guard sensitive sites. City workers and those who had stayed in town began cleanup. Convoys of help arrived from east and west on Interstate 10: police forces, rescue workers, utility crews, contractors, and volunteers.

Insurance adjusters descended to write their estimates. The Army Corps of Engineers put “blue roofs,” a tarp system, on damaged homes for free, by request. President Trump approved the Governor’s request for a Major Disaster Declaration and arrived to look at damage.

Homeowners, businesses, and schools began to put their damaged things at the curb for pickup and were supposed to sort it in six categories, per the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality: 1) Normal household trash; 2) Vegetative debris (logs, branches, plants); 3) Construction and demolition debris (drywall, carpets, furniture, mattresses, plumbing, glass, metal, roofing, etc.); 4) Appliances and “white goods” (air conditioners, dishwashers, refrigerators, stoves, water heaters, washers and dryers); 5) Electronics (computers, TVs, stereos, microwaves, etc.); and 6) Household hazardous waste (cleaning supplies, batteries, fertilizers, pesticides, oil, fuels, paint, thinner, etc.).

Having been in town immediately after Laura, I can say this sorting often was not done. What is more, the city’s garbage services could not even begin to pick up household waste for 11 days, due to roads being blocked by fallen trees, downed power lines, collapsed walls, and other debris.

Lake Charles, August 29, 2020, after Hurricane Laura. (Photo by John Griswold)

Residents were told to take spoiled food and household waste to three collection points. Needless to say, many could not get to those sites, did not hear of them for lack of Internet and cell service, or were not in town to do it. There are stories of those who came back to town after a few days having to throw out their refrigerators because of the smell. Many in town did not have water to flush toilets and had to bag human waste too.

Food waste is sometimes considered its own category, called “putrescible,” which FEMA defines as “any debris that will decompose or rot, such as animal carcasses and other fleshy organic matter.”

Bags of rotten food appeared at the curbs and in trash cans and dumpsters, attracting rats, raccoons, possums, and flies, and were soon crawling with maggots. The smell of it in the heat was, well, putrescent.

There are stories of those who came back to town after a few days having to throw out their refrigerators because of the smell. Many in town did not have water to flush toilets and had to bag human waste too.

FEMA did not allow CrowderGulf to pick up household or hazardous waste. That was left to Republic Services and Waste Management, Lake Charles’ normal trash service-providers. Those companies did not respond to a request for information, so I do not know how much of that garbage there was, how long it took to collect, or where it went.

But think of it this way: a gallon of milk weighs 8.6 pounds. Imagine every household in the city—not to mention the restaurants and all the supermarkets—emptying their fridges and freezers full of frozen pork loins, tubs of ice cream, pizzas, jars of mayo, ketchup, salad dressings, heads of lettuce, and packs of lunchmeat and cheese. Without running water, there was no way even to empty glass and plastic containers down a drain or disposal, so it all went straight into black trash bags straining at the handles. Is a thousand tons of rotting food in non-biodegradable containers, for 77,000 people, off the mark? That would be merely 25 pounds each. Even that seems optimistic.

 

•  •  •

 

CrowderGulf had as many as 750 workers in the parish at once to remove, reduce, and dump road debris. The majority were contracted or subcontracted specifically for the project. Some were local, but many were “from all over,” Brian Smallwood, CrowderGulf’s Regional Manager in the area, told me. Management-team members are all full-time CrowderGulf employees.

One measure of the company’s work in Calcasieu Parish and Lake Charles is the 225,000 truckloads collected to date. This represents 6.95 million cubic yards of debris removed, so far, in the parish, and another 4.2 million cubic yards in the city.

Another measure is the ongoing bills from CrowderGulf and Tetra Tech, which total more than $230 million. Dump fees of $7 to $9 per cubic yard, which CrowderGulf pays and bills clients for without markup, are included in that figure. Smallwood told me that while some clients can pay a portion of their bills as work is done, most of it is paid after clients get their money from FEMA.

Debra Young, an External Affairs Officer for FEMA, sent me a statement that showed “Louisiana parishes designated federally declared disaster areas under Hurricane Laura for Public Assistance Category A (debris removal) and Category B (emergency protective measures) are currently eligible for a 90 percent cost-share for each category.” That is, FEMA pays 90 percent, and Calcasieu 10 percent.

The cap had been 75 percent, but a FEMA bulletin in March read, “Damage from Hurricane Laura was of such severity that it crossed the threshold of FEMA’s normal Public Assistance cost-share rate of 75 percent and allowed the State of Louisiana to receive a rarely reached cost-share rate of 90 percent for eligible damages.”

Young’s statement also said, of Laura, “On October 29, 2020, the President of the United States authorized a 100 percent federal cost-share for debris removal and emergency protective measures under the Public Assistance program for a continuous period of 30 days established by the State of Louisiana.”

For Hurricane Delta, “Louisiana parishes designated federally declared disaster areas . . . for Public Assistance Category A are eligible for a 75 percent cost-share for debris removal.”

Cleanup for the February deep-freeze and May downpour appear not to be funded.

The city’s and the parish’s share is still an enormous amount of money, especially in the age of COVID, and for a region with an economy tied to the petrochemical industry, which has faced slowing and disruption.

 

•  •  •

 

The specialized trucks used to pick up road debris are like two giant cubes pulled by a semi-tractor. The first cube has a hydraulic grapple in its bed, which reaches out to pick up debris and put it in the second trailer. The truck driver can do this on their own 90 percent of the time, but they sometimes have an assistant to help pick up loose items the grapple cannot get. According to Smallwood, a Tetra Tech monitor follows every truck on its route and enters every pick-up’s GPS location, time, and the amount and type of debris, so there cannot be unauthorized pickups outside the service area, or charges for loads not removed.

When the trailer is considered to be at capacity—a tree trunk takes up less space than a jumble of wires and insulation, but is much heavier—the truck is driven to one of the multi-acre staging and reduction sites scattered around town. There are only five sites now, but at one point there were “double-digits,” Jade Miller said. They are mostly empty now, but Miller said that they have all been piled high, multiple times, in the last ten months. The one I visited was in North Lake Charles, on the Calcasieu River, near a grade school.

Loads are inspected as they come in by Tetra Tech monitors, who stand on towers to look down into the beds and check for hazardous materials, household waste, tires—all prohibited—and that the load is “full.” Then the trucks are emptied by the driver, with the grapple arm. Trees, branches, and stumps go in one area, and C&D debris goes in another.

A massive mechanical grinder chews up tree trunks and stumps, and branches are run through a chipper, to make mountains of coarse mulch. The C&D waste is run over by a tracked Cat to crush and flatten it. All of it is then loaded in end-dump trailers pulled by semi-tractors and taken to one of the four landfills.

Loads are inspected as they come in by Tetra Tech monitors, who stand on towers to look down into the beds and check for hazardous materials, household waste, tires—all prohibited—and that the load is “full.” Then the trucks are emptied by the driver, with the grapple arm. Trees, branches, and stumps go in one area, and C&D debris goes in another.

The road debris work has been going 11 months and is expected to go past August. CrowderGulf still has 20 trucks running in Lake Charles alone. But when I ran into their Lake Charles Program Manager at the reduction site, he said, “Oh, you missed the big show. This is the last leg of it.”

Jade Miller said that, politically, things might still be hard, but debris-wise, it was easy now. “Hopefully we don’t have to deal with it [again] for a long time,” he said.

“There’s one already coming off Africa now,” the CrowderGulf man said, meaning an atmospheric disturbance that could become a hurricane. He laughed.

“Aw, we won’t talk about it,” Miller said.

The man laughed harder.

 

•  •  •

 

An abandoned Motel 6 along a main road in Lake Charles. (Photo by John Griswold)

 

Thanks to the city, the parish, CrowderGulf, and Tetra Tech, there is no longer the danger of downed trees or electrical wires in the roads. Traffic in Lake Charles is normal, maybe even heavier than before Laura. But something feels off, and usually all it takes is to focus the eyes: a downtown office building being cooled and dried by a trailer-mounted unit; twisted metal fencing; those crummy apartments torn down, revealing other ones; the skyscraper still covered in plywood instead of aqua glass. It is easy to miss a turn, because that grove of trees is no longer there to serve as landmark. There is too much open sky.

There is still plenty of debris, too, piled at curbs, washed into gutters and ditches and fields, and sticking up in the bayous. An abandoned, skeletal Motel 6, on one of the main roads through Lake Charles, sits with its doors hanging open, its made-beds and carpets gathering dirt. Mayor Hunter told me the motel was likely in mediation with their insurance company.

He is sympathetic, because he feels insurance companies do not pay out as they used to, but, “We believe that the time is upon us for buildings like that to have a plan,” he said. “We want to have a heart. We want an open line of communication with property owners, but we also realize that, as a city, we cannot allow these buildings to continue to fester for indefinite amounts of time.”

An abandoned, skeletal Motel 6, on one of the main roads through Lake Charles, sits with its doors hanging open, its made-beds and carpets gathering dirt. Mayor Hunter told me the motel was likely in mediation with their insurance company.

Despite the success of road-debris removal, Mayor Hunter told me there are several major problems for which the city still needs aid: a housing shortage (“upwards of $230 million”), displacement and flight of former residents, the corresponding labor shortage, and a dire need to harden infrastructure against future damage.

The Mayor is angry.

“Supplemental disaster aid is desperately needed,” he said. “The type of aid that we’re asking for was announced 10 days after Hurricane Katrina, 34 days after Hurricane Andrew, 98 days after Hurricane Sandy. We are now 300 days post-Hurricane Laura. On top of that, Hurricane Delta, a winter storm, and a 1000-year flood on May 17th. So the City of Lake Charles has encountered more federally-declared natural disasters than any other US city in modern history. Yet we’re languishing. We’re suffering, and we have not had the same response and same aid that other communities have received after just one natural disaster. So it’s very frustrating and disheartening.”

 

•  •  •

 

Parish Administrator Bryan Beam has ongoing concerns too, such as “1700 miles of drainage laterals [and] all of those having hurricane debris and trees. Now, some are rural but we have to try to remove the debris…. [T]hat’s more miles than our roads, and they’re harder to get to.”

It is going to be expensive, he admits, “so what we’re doing is, we’re in the process of working through FEMA” and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency. “You have to submit applications for grant funding through them, and so we’ve begun that process, or we started that after the storm, back in the fall. We’re hoping to embark on that soon. That’s just to remove the debris that is what they call ‘life-threatening,’ that’s a term NRCS uses, which means it’s considered something that is obstructing the flow of water. They won’t pay for removing, you know, soda bottles. So that’s going to take a very long time, certainly as long, or probably longer, than it took to do the road debris removal.”

Both CrowderGulf and the parish believe a contract will be awarded for this project very soon. They will probably start with the three biggest bayous and work back all the way to small feeder ditches. All the junk in them will go in the dumps as well.

 

•  •  •

 

An eagle-eye view of Lake Charles, taken from the Mayor’s Office, with its landmark Capital One building at left in the skyline. (Photo by John Griswold)

Consider the waste of it all. The waste of lives, capital, resources, missed opportunities, of people flung around the country. The emotional toll, original cost, replacement cost, carbon footprint, fuel used. Chemicals spilled. Food rotted. The waste of plastics and glass and lumber and steel and aluminum buried under new dirt.

Not everyone is unhappy with the situation of a city and its industry on the storm shore. Rats, raccoons, and flies have eaten well. Real estate is said to be a seller’s market due to lack of housing. Contractors who had the materials on hand to finish developments that would not sell before the storms find them in high demand now: wealthy people sick of dealing with their damaged homes are buying second homes to live in, until their main ones are repaired. All the questionably-licensed and -bonded crews that came over from Texas and Florida and Georgia made bundles and went home. Some homeowners got brand-new insurance roofs when it was deemed the Army Corps’ blue-roofs had done more damage than the storms.

Consider the waste of it all. The waste of lives, capital, resources, missed opportunities, of people flung around the country. The emotional toll, original cost, replacement cost, carbon footprint, fuel used. Chemicals spilled. Food rotted. The waste of plastics and glass and lumber and steel and aluminum buried under new dirt.

CrowderGulf and Tetra Tech have had a year’s steady work and will get another, if contracted to clean off-road laterals.

All it will take is for the money to be found.

 

•  •  •

 

There was and is a lot of misery under this recovery. Threats to city and parish government from global petro-corporations, that they need to tend to the quality of life in their towns or else the companies will not be able to find and retain good workers, seem pretty rich, considering their business is filthy, dangerous, and believed by most scientists to have helped cause the climate crisis that drives the water onshore.

(See this map by the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority; click “Flood Risk” and advance the slider to “25” or “50” years.)

A realtor in the area who has sold hundreds of millions of dollars in properties suddenly looks frightened speaking to me and says if one more storm wreaks havoc, she just does not know. . . .  She does not discount a community collapse that might be compared to Flint, Michigan’s.

The Mayor tells me, “I’m going to live in Lake Charles forever. I don’t care what the situation is, but I want opportunities for my family to enjoy the city. We’re working on some of those right now [and are] very excited about some upcoming groundbreakings and some things we’ve been working on for many years.”

A realtor in the area who has sold hundreds of millions of dollars in properties suddenly looks frightened speaking to me and says if one more storm wreaks havoc, she just does not know. . . . 

But it was not enough to remove, or even to replace, all that now lies in dumps. To survive, the Mayor repeats, they need more.

“[W]e are a self-reliant community, but we do need more federal assistance right now. Again, we will recover. Lake Charles is going to bounce back from this, but the length of time it takes us and the level of resiliency that we’re able to bounce back [with] really will depend on the federal response.”

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