Whose Problem Is Lake Charles, Louisiana? A port town struggles with storm damage, climate change, questionable economic choices, residential abandonment, inadequate federal aid, and a possible future of more of the same.

(Photograph by John Griswold)

It can be lovely to live near water for the views and moderated temperatures. Water is a conduit for travel, work, and trade, and one can see the sails of one’s enemies long before they arrive. But to be open to the world also means risking disaster.

In 869 CE, low-lying areas of northern Japan were inundated after an earthquake as large as magnitude 9.0 caused the sea to reach onshore nearly three miles. Several towns and Taga Castle, a regional center of power, were destroyed. A thousand people died.

In 2011, a very similar magnitude 9.1 quake caused another tsunami in the same region of Japan. Almost 20,000 people died immediately, and more than a million homes were damaged. Three nuclear reactors melted down to various degrees, releasing contamination, and evacuation from Fukushima Prefecture contributed to the deaths of thousands more. This single event caused $220 billion in damages, making it “the most expensive natural disaster in history,” according to NOAA.

There are more of us now, everywhere, so more people are affected by natural disasters, and the size, density, and type of our constructions have changed.

Think of all the things no one on the planet had until recently, which when damaged must be repaired or replaced: Electrical wiring and fixtures, appliances, drywall, insulation, flooring systems, water heaters, extensive plumbing, sewer lines, high-efficiency furnaces, central air units, computers, broadband lines, cell towers, waste and water treatment plants, power grids, and more. Then there are the cars, trucks, boats, and ships; our network of roads and highways; rail lines and running stock; and airport infrastructure and planes—all essential to life as many of us have come to know it.

There are more of us now, everywhere, so more people are affected by natural disasters, and the size, density, and type of our constructions have changed.

In the United States, coastal life is becoming riskier and more expensive because the atmosphere is warming, causing sea rise, land loss, and more frequent and more violent storms. About 40 percent of us, 127 million people, live in coastal counties. Yet some of us keep developing on risky coasts, and all of us are paying to restore communities in greater danger all the time.

 

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Lake Charles, Louisiana, is a particularly sensitive canary in the coal mine of global warming. Not only is southwest Louisiana low-lying in the age of sea-rise; the land is also subsiding faster than just about anywhere on earth, and water courses through everything. The city does not have the engineered barriers to storm-surge flooding of, say, New Orleans’ Inner Harbor Navigation Canal.

Lake Charles, like New Orleans, sits at the apex of the Gulf of Mexico, which is both trap and heat engine for Atlantic hurricanes. A hurricane has hit the Louisiana coast at least every 2.8 years on average since 1851. (Records are spotty before the twentieth century.) Some 50 hurricanes have hit southwest Louisiana since the 1930s, and Audrey, in 1957, killed 500, many of whom went into mass graves in Lake Charles.

As the effects of climate change worsen, the number and severity of hurricanes, heavy rainstorms, and flooding events will increase. Last year, a new record was set in Louisiana for the most tropical storms to make landfall in a season. The Mayor of Lake Charles told me that a record-setting rainstorm in May 2021, which dumped about fifteen inches on the city in six hours, was a thousand-year event, but that is what the National Weather Service called a rainstorm in southern Louisiana in 2016.

Over ten months, starting in August 2020, Lake Charles took direct hits from Hurricanes Laura and Delta, endured Winter Storm Uri, which also overwhelmed the grid, and got that flooding rainstorm in the spring, which ruined many repairs from the earlier storms—all while dealing with the COVID pandemic.

Laura alone was the strongest hurricane to hit Louisiana in more than 150 years and caused $19 billion in damage, more than any of the twenty-one other billion-dollar disasters in the United States in 2020. (NOAA says, “2020 stands head and shoulders above all other years in regard to the number of billion-dollar disasters,” and attributes that to climate change.)

Many properties were uninsured or underinsured, however, or owners agreed to high deductibles, sometimes in the tens of thousands of dollars, which they could not pay.

After Laura, the subsequent storms in Lake Charles did more damage to open buildings and to weakened infrastructure. The city was left in shambles and is still in active recovery mode, even as the anniversary of Laura approaches.

Many buildings around town are still damaged and sit unoccupied, including strip malls, a multistory Motel 6, and the iconic single skyscraper in town. Mayor Nic Hunter told me he thinks some of the buildings’ owners are in mediation with insurance companies.

“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. So we are beginning that process to notify owners . . . that their building is red-tagged, which means it will need to be addressed and/or demolished.”

Eyesores could affect the perception of the city’s ability to do business, as well as the “quality of life” in the community. But if they are razed—perhaps further burdening the city budget—the visual impression of absence will deepen, which might not be good either.

Lake Charles has also begun to warn homeowners they could face liens if they do not get their properties repaired and their lawns mowed, but, the mayor said, “We don’t want to go in and put liens on properties. The city does not want any more property than we already have. We want people to be able to fix up their property themselves or tear it down and rebuild.”

Many properties were uninsured or underinsured, however, or owners agreed to high deductibles, sometimes in the tens of thousands of dollars, which they could not pay.

I asked Mayor Hunter if he thought insurance companies were making things more difficult now, which seems to be the consensus in the region on social media.

“Yes, I believe so,” he said. “I have heard these stories from hundreds of citizens, and I’m sure there’s thousands out there just in southwest Louisiana.”

But the ongoing problems related to natural disasters are various and only start with insurance issues. There is a severe housing shortage, for instance.

The population has shrunk, because many residents fled the storms; some chose not to return or else have no habitable home or job to return to. Some 4,000 public school students will not be returning. Tax revenues will be smaller, at a time when city and parish budgets are overwhelmed.

“[T]he housing need alone just for the City of Lake Charles is upwards of $230 million,” the mayor told me. “So there is no way that the City of Lake Charles can fill that gap locally. That’s why it’s so important that we receive supplemental disaster aid. Those are the dollars that people can use to repair their home or rebuild their home if they were uninsured or underinsured.”

It is also hard to get tradespeople out to do repairs. Wood, steel, and other materials are in short supply and therefore prohibitively expensive. Recent data show that construction, manufacturing, trade, transportation, utilities, and professional and business services are still down from twelve months ago.

The population has shrunk, because many residents fled the storms; some chose not to return or else have no habitable home or job to return to. Some 4,000 public school students will not be returning. Tax revenues will be smaller, at a time when city and parish budgets are overwhelmed.

These problems are woven into one big effect: a sense that some tipping point could still be reached, that the city could fail, whatever that might mean. A local, top-selling realtor told me it might take only one more big storm to create a crisis of confidence that could lead to a Flint, Michigan, style blight.

 

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(Photograph by John Griswold)

 

 

We have civilizations in part to spread around risk and pain, since rugged individualism, gumption, and local resources cannot always be expected to suffice.

Historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote recently, “As a young man, Lincoln had watched his town of New Salem, Illinois, die because the settlers—hard workers, eager to make the town succeed—could not dredge the Sangamon River to promote trade by themselves. Lincoln later mused, ‘The legitimate object of government is “to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they can not, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves.”’”

This is especially true after natural disasters. But such relief is not automatic and inevitably gets politicized.

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has reimbursed the City of Lake Charles and Calcasieu Parish (its county) about $200 million for cleanup of “road debris,” which is almost anything that could be dragged to the side of a road for pickup. So far, 225,000 truckloads have gone to local landfills. But even with special federal allowances acknowledging the severity of Laura, about 10 percent of total costs were left to local governments, and the cleanup is not complete. This FEMA funding also did not provide for the disposal of food, medical, or hazardous waste.

Off-road debris, such as trees and roofs, hung up in 1,700 miles of essential “drainage laterals”—bayous, canals, ditches, and fields—has barely been touched and will require separate federal funding. Calcasieu Parish Administrator Bryan Beam told me that such work, if left only to the finances and manpower of the parish, could take almost a decade to complete—even if that was their only task.

Meanwhile, residents complain that the debris is affecting how even normal rains run off their properties. They worry about the 2021 hurricane season, which has already begun and does not end until November 30. It is predicted to have “above normal” activity.

Mayor Hunter is angry and believes bigger municipalities with more prestige have been given preferential treatment for disaster aid.

“[T]he proper commensurate federal response has not occurred yet from all of the disasters that we have been through,” he told me. “Supplemental disaster aid is desperately needed. The type of [federal] 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 [was] 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.” (He has stopped naming the other communities.)

I asked him what he thinks the problem is.

“I get that question asked a lot, and the answer I have is a really pathetic one. It is simply that Washington, DC, is more dysfunctional and stagnant and polarized today than it has been in generations.

“The other answer that I get is that there were not a lot of natural disasters spread across the country geographically last year. Lake Charles got beat up really hard. Other than us and a couple other smaller hurricanes and some wildfires, we did not have as many disasters spread across the US geographically.

“The ridiculous and sad thing is it’s almost like that’s saying, ‘Well, the Americans in southwest Louisiana don’t matter as much as Americans in other parts of the country.’ It also is a really sad and pathetic answer, but those are the answers we continue to receive.”

 

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Do you care about the viability of Lake Charles, Louisiana? This is like asking if you care about dozens of municipalities, from Miami to Los Angeles, in the age of worsening climate-related disasters. They might not be your cities, but their economies are part of the fabric of the nation’s vitality, and their goods and services may affect how you live without you knowing it.

Even Lake Charles, population 77,000, can be seen as too big to fail. It is the state’s sixth-largest city, with a 160-year history, and is home to three casinos and a regional state university.

Its petrochemical industry, according to Dr. Gregory Upton, Associate Research Professor at the Louisiana State University Center for Energy Studies, contributed about $6 billion of GDP to the Lake Charles area in 2019. The refineries make gasoline, diesel, and petroleum coke for industrial use. Sasol’s Lake Charles Chemical Complex alone makes “ingredients for soaps, detergents, shampoos, cosmetics, healthcare supplies, in addition to specialty chemicals used in mild abrasives, thickeners and pharmaceuticals,” and “polyester fiber for clothing, upholstery, carpet and pillows, fiberglass, detergents, soaps and more.”

Do you care about the viability of Lake Charles, Louisiana? This is like asking if you care about dozens of municipalities, from Miami to Los Angeles, in the age of worsening climate-related disasters. They might not be your cities, but their economies are part of the fabric of the nation’s vitality, and their goods and services may affect how you live without you knowing it.

Lake Charles is also a Port of the United States, linked to the Gulf by the Calcasieu Ship Channel and a series of lakes that negate the sense of “30 miles inland.” In 2019 it handled 58 million tons of cargo, behind just ten other ports, including its neighbors Baton Rouge (73 million), New Orleans (92 million), the Port of South Louisiana (238 million), and Houston (285 million), the top U.S. port for combined domestic and foreign tonnage.

Clair Hebert Marceaux is Director of the Cameron Port, Harbor & Terminal District. She calls Cameron Parish, below Calcasieu and directly on the Gulf, “a barrier island” to Lake Charles. She says Cameron is home to $50 billion in completed Liquefied Natural Gas construction, with another $40 billion proposed, and only one of two national Strategic Petroleum Reserves. She says Cameron Parish exports more LNG than “all but two countries, worldwide, making Cameron Parish third among nations in the entire world.”

In general, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says, “The southern coastal area [of Louisiana] is home to nearly half the state’s population, one-third of the fish (by weight) commercially harvested in the lower 48 states, and five of the fifteen busiest ports (by tonnage) in the United States. In addition, nearly 25 percent of all the oil and gas consumed in America and 80 percent of the nation’s offshore oil and gas travel through coastal Louisiana. As wetlands erode, the infrastructure that transports the nation’s energy supply becomes increasingly susceptible to storm damage.”

The threat is big enough that the Army Corps discussed, years ago, building “The Great Wall of Louisiana,” a 12-foot high seawall and levee across the entire bottom of the state. When that idea was discarded as impractical, other options were floated, such as surrounding the most important urban areas, as if they were medieval fortress towns.

In some ways, New Orleans, one of those other communities Mayor Hunter has in mind, already is a fortress, though is still not impregnable. The Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, authorized and funded in 2005 after Katrina and Rita, forms what the Army Corps of Engineers calls a 133-mile “perimeter system” of armored “levees, floodwalls, gated structures and pump stations” around the Greater New Orleans area, as well as 70 miles of “interior risk reduction structures.” It cost $15 billion.

 

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(Photo by John Griswold)

 

It is no small irony that the hurricane coast signed a deal with the devil of petrochemicals and that it was also among the first hurt by climate change. Lake Charles has pimped itself to the oil and chemistry industry since the start of the twentieth century, and though the Mayor speaks of diversification, he says, “[T]here are certain aspects of our economy that are our core and have been for 30 and 40 years, and that’s okay. [ . . . ] I do believe that the corporate world and investment community should look to Lake Charles as an opportunity.”

Bryan Beam, Calcasieu Parish Administrator, told me, “Our industry is leading the country and the world in some areas in all kinds of petrochemical, natural gas, [and other] industry . . . and the community here is very welcoming of those kinds of projects. There’s plenty of other communities that wouldn’t touch an LNG company or touch a petrochemical company, whereas we say, ‘Come on down, we got a spot for you right next to the other multibillion-dollar facility producing X amount of product.’”

It is no small irony that the hurricane coast signed a deal with the devil of petrochemicals and that it was also among the first hurt by climate change.

The Sasol Chemicals Complex alone in Lake Charles ranked second in a national listing of top-100 “super polluters.” Yet both Mayor Hunter and Bryan Beam hinted at conversations with industry in which the city was warned to make its “quality of life” more enjoyable, or else industry would have a hard time finding and keeping employees—a veiled threat to take their business elsewhere, it seems. The hypocrisy is staggering.

Are some of Lake Charles’ problems its own fault, starting with its ambition to be bigger and better, on a site that eventually may be uninhabitable without geoengineering-level funding? Will Congress eventually need to say enough is enough to pleas for more aid? Has someone already made that decision? Will that sort of call ever be made conclusively for New Orleans, Houston, Miami, Las Vegas, or Los Angeles County?

 

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The Mayor acknowledges that other cities’ name recognition, lobbying power, and populations give them more clout.

But it also probably does not help that southwest Louisiana is insular, its society formed around family name, religion, and race. Or that it is often suspicious of outsiders, to whom it must now turn.

Or that one of its dominant themes is extreme self-reliance. Mayor Hunter: “We are a very resilient and self-reliant community here in southwest Louisiana, and that’s a good thing. [W]e are helping each other right now.”

(He went on: “But when you look at the totality of what we have been hit with and the ferocity and the magnitude, it rises to a certain level where it exceeds the amount of local financial capital and local human capital that we have.”)

. . . it also probably does not help that southwest Louisiana is insular, its society formed around family name, religion, and race. Or that it is often suspicious of outsiders, to whom it must now turn. Or that one of its dominant themes is extreme self-reliance.

Bryan Beam: “[W]e have a strong history of self-reliance, doesn’t mean we don’t ever ask for help, but we’re pretty quiet about our achievements, and sometimes that works against you, because people forget. We don’t brag a lot about the good things we do. I’m not saying we’re gonna start doing that,” he says and laughs. “Sometimes you wonder if . . . more attention goes to the ones that are just, you know, louuud.”

Or that the region embraces the Red state’s hatred of “big government,” even though 37 percent of Louisiana’s revenue is already provided by the feds—a higher percentage than any other state or the District of Columbia. Despite the injection of cash, the state is often at the bottom of rankings for health, education, economy, stability, crime, gun problems, and environmental issues. Recently it was ranked “the worst” state by US News.

Government leaders in Lake Charles and Calcasieu Parish are caught in a number of traps, including one that forces them to ask not just for the amount of money needed to clean up and rebuild, but for much more than that. There is no point in rebuilding as things were, open to destruction. Leaders must also plan to harden infrastructure, make water and power systems redundant, and reshape the landscape with green spaces that will mitigate future storms and flooding.

Business-as-usual is like a velocity. Any difference in speed or direction is change, which costs someone something.

There is no point in rebuilding as things were, open to destruction. Leaders must also plan to harden infrastructure, make water and power systems redundant, and reshape the landscape with green spaces that will mitigate future storms and flooding.

Yet the Brookings Institution points to how “government policies create incentives for people to make economically detrimental decisions, including settling and building on land exposed to hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. These policies already cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars annually and may cost a lot more by . . . amplify[ing] dangers . . . likely to become more severe due to the impacts of global warming.”

It warns that the effects of encouraging development in risky areas could “ripple through the insurance markets and create cascading financial stress.”

 

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(Photograph by John Griswold)

 

 

 

The money for road debris removal and other covered expenses in Lake Charles and Calcasieu Parish came from FEMA Public Assistance grants, Category A (debris removal) and Category B (emergency protective measures). Public Assistance is FEMA’s largest grant program.

Some of the subsequent aid that Mayor Hunter would like to see is from Community Development Block Grants-Disaster Recovery, from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In a January 22, 2021 letter to President Biden, Governor John Bel Edwards requested Community Development Block Grants-Mitigation for southwest Louisiana. He also requested a Social Services Block Grant, to help cover expenses for “behavioral health care, child welfare, community social services, child care, and household-related needs”; Emergency Solutions Grant Program funding, for “significant housing and sheltering needs”; an extension of FEMA Cost Share Reductions for “debris removal and emergency protective measures”; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funding for economic development and ecosystem restoration; and Natural Resource Conservation Service funding, for “critical projects to reduce future losses and address critical impacts from these storms not covered by other agencies or authorities,” especially clearing the drainage laterals clogged with downed trees and other debris.

“As in previous times of difficulty,” the Governor wrote Biden, “Louisianans have once again risen to meet the challenges of rebuilding by helping their friends, families, neighbors and even total strangers begin the process of starting anew. While we do not doubt the ability of our citizens to recover, we need the help of the federal government to make that recovery complete.”

No one I have spoken with can say why, exactly, this funding has not materialized.

Mayor Hunter went to Washington, D.C., last week to meet with HUD officials, White House staff, and Clay Higgins, among others. Hunter’s was a voice crying out in the wilderness of politics and disaster. No solutions were found, though an attempt was made in the U.S. Senate, at the same time, by Louisiana Senator John Kennedy.

The Office of Clay Higgins, Republican in the U.S. House for Louisiana’s 3rd District, which includes Lake Charles, told me, “We share the frustration of city and parish officials on this issue. Speaker Pelosi’s office has communicated through the media that she and the Biden administration are considering the need for supplemental disaster funding. Respectfully, I say to her that we are beyond the time for consideration.”

“[M]y office has supported Louisiana’s request in every way through every channel. However, our communications to the Biden administration and Speaker Pelosi have gone unanswered. [W]e need President Biden and Speaker Pelosi to allow a supplemental disaster bill to move forward. Further, that needs to happen as a clean bill. Disaster relief should not be used as a bargaining chip to coerce Republican votes on a larger, controversial proposal.”

The Governor, Mayor Hunter, and Parish administrators are all more realistic and open about how neither Trump nor Biden acted on the issue to their satisfaction.

Speaker Pelosi’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Mayor Hunter went to Washington, D.C., last week to meet with HUD officials, White House staff, and Clay Higgins, among others. Hunter’s was a voice crying out in the wilderness of politics and disaster. No solutions were found, though an attempt was made in the U.S. Senate, at the same time, by Louisiana Senator John Kennedy. He called for unanimous consent on the Gulf Coast Hurricane Aid Act, which would provide $1.1 billion in relief by funding the Community Development Block Grant program with proceeds from the federal sale of C-band licensing in February.

“The damages are in the billions, and billions, and billions, and billions, and billions of dollars. They need help,” Kennedy said.

The bill was blocked by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY). “There is a trillion-dollar wish list out there for everybody. Everybody wants somethin’, and everybody says there’s money in the treasury. And guess what? There’s not. There’s a big hole, there’s a big black hole in the treasury. Twenty-eight trillion dollars’ worth. [ . . . ] We should be fiscally conservative as we profess to be.” (Rand Paul voted to increase the deficit by a trillion dollars under Trump.)

The Mayor’s Office called a press conference in Lake Charles for July 27th.

 

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What will happen to Lake Charles and other places at similar risk, once the federal government loses interest in keeping them going? The city cannot fix all its own problems, nor can it be abandoned, or picked up and moved to Arkansas. Could it still become a green-space model for other communities facing sea-level rise? Will it become a spiraling blight? Whose responsibility will any of that be: local, state, or federal governments? Mutual aid? Industry, which sends its profits elsewhere?

A staff editorial in The Advocate, Louisiana’s largest daily newspaper, made a backhanded plea that reflects the real quandary:

“Lake Charles is an amiable town where petrochemicals and shipping have boomed. But it lacks the panache of New Orleans, the political power of Baton Rouge and the personality of Lafayette’s Cajun and Creole culture. That region is depending upon the kindness of others in south Louisiana and beyond. That’s us. Will we be there when our neighbors need us?”

On July 27, after a fiery prayer by a local pastor, Mayor Hunter told a crowd in the Jean Lafitte Room in the Lake Charles Civic Center, “I went back and forth on whether I wanted to say this next comment, but I’m just gonna say it, because it’s the way it is. And it pains me to say this: We don’t have the bandwidth, here in southwest Louisiana.

“We don’t have the numbers, and we have got to appeal to the rest of this state, and we’ve got to appeal to the rest of this country, to realize the pain that we’re going through. ‘Cause we are your brothers and your sisters here in southwest Louisiana. We matter. And I can remember what I felt like in 2005, when I watched those images on TV of Hurricane Katrina. And I would have done anything to help those individuals who so desperately needed it in southeast Louisiana. And we’re asking people to feel that way about us right now.”

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