Lake Charles and Hurricane Laura

In a time of instant expectation, a hurricane is a lesson in waiting. I grew up in the Midwest, where tornadoes blossom quickly, and their effects are quickly known. A hurricane grinds its way from Africa, many times, its path uncertain. Even after forecast models converge, and its landfall spot is known more surely, several sunny calm days can go by before it arrives. The not-knowing, over long periods of time, is both abstract and a concrete worry.

Not that those who live in the Gulf South do not know there will be problems. I wrote about our own house in Lake Charles, Louisiana, recently, and the tremendous forces of nature, time, history, and engineering involved in living there.

My family and our pets are all safe, after Hurricane Laura ran herself ashore late Wednesday night, with Lake Charles right in her path. After years of waiting for a hurricane with massively-destructive power to hit southwest Louisiana again, and after days of waiting for this particular storm to finish churning up the Gulf, it finally happened.

Forecasters were certain, and correct, that Laura would come ashore as a highly dangerous Category 4 with a tight eye. Its windspeed was only seven miles per hour short of Category 5. They also anticipated 20 feet or more of storm surge, that most dangerous phenomenon that can make a hurricane seem like a tsunami. Even in Lake Charles, 30 miles inland, surge was predicted for nine feet, the National Weather Service warned. The effects of all this water driving onshore would be “unsurvivable,” they said. For those who refused to leave, law enforcement reportedly said to write their names and Social Security numbers in Sharpie markers on their forearms, and to write their names and next of kins’ phone numbers on paper and put them in Ziplocs in their pockets.

The waiting creates its own social phenomena. There was time for social media users to insist that God must calm the winds and stop Laura in her path. Hurricane parties do not seem to be as big now, after fatalities of previous years, and due to Covid, but families who stayed intended to make the best of it. Semi-pro “extreme storm chasers” seem to have replaced the parties, and there is a Youtube video with reputed streamed audio from one of those guys, who stayed behind in Cameron Parish, south of Lake Charles. The end of the recording is the sound of explosive water, shouting, then silence.

Pre-dawn Facebook was a morass of rumors of whole-town explosions, of the highway bridge’s collapse, finally, and of widespread devastation.

By first light it was clear that the worst fears of storm-surge inundation had not come to pass. There would be no families on their roofs, waving for rescue by Coast Guard helicopters. The wind, however, appears to have been much worse than in Hurricane Rita, in 2005, which according to our real estate agent left Lake Charles looking “like a bombed-out third-world country.”

The first things that got notice on social media (which locals who evacuated use for immediate news) were the more visually spectacular things in specific spots, which one Twitter user pointed out also seemed like consequences of longstanding issues.

For example, a fire broke out in one of the many chemical plants nearby, which along with refineries have been a basis of the regional economy for decades. “BioLab manufactures chlorine-based products…. The facility also makes trichloroisocynuric acid and other chemicals,” ABC reported. The dark smoke towered above the out-of-control fire and rolled over the interstate tat goes to Texas. A “shelter in place” order was issued for those who lived nearby.

The large gambling boat of the Isle of Capri casino (called locally “the Pile of Debris”) had broken its moorings and was wedged under the endangered bridge, which still stood.

And the statue of Johnny Reb, dedicated to the “Defenders of the South, which stood on a plinth on the courthouse lawn in downtown Lake Charles, had fallen and crumpled. There was angry debate recently about removing it to a museum, but the city had voted to keep it in place.

The couple of tall glass-sheathed buildings downtown, on the lakefront, had rained broken glass all night in the tropical rain, and a mile-long train was blown off tracks in South Lake Charles.

Most of all, on every block in town, and in all the inhabited rural areas in the parish, trees were uprooted and broken, electrical poles snapped, and transmission towers bent double like long grass.

Streets are not being called streets by the sheriff; they are “trails,” because they are covered in trees, power lines, and debris of all sorts, with paths among them. Law enforcement is having to clear roads just to answer calls.

There is no power anywhere  except by generator; no water, no sewer, no food sales, no gasoline to be had. Hospitals have limited capabilities. Other emergency services have lost some communications and are hampered by being overwhelmed and by impassable roads.

But the National Guard and other cleanup crews are at work, and there was a press conference a few hours ago with law enforcement, city officials, and utility company representatives, who all said restoration and recovery are underway.

Now everyone must wait to see what recovery means. Chatter on Facebook groups is intense, as relatives ask about their loved ones, and those who evacuated try to understand what happened to their properties. Volunteer live-streamers drive around Lake Charles, shooting video from their trucks, showing those at a distance what things look like now. At least one amateur drone owner shot footage, going up one of the main drags, and posted it. (If I had money, I would start a nonprofit drone company that arrived in stricken cities and flew over specific addresses by request, so people could see what they faced on return.)

The mood is not terrible, overall. One man stood in the street near downtown, holding an American flag and saluting as the first cars passed. “Lake Charles strong, y’all,” people say on their feeds.

President Trump is said to be arriving in Lake Charles this weekend, presumably just to fly over by helicopter. Evidently the procedure for federal relief is that the President must declare a state of emergency, then the Governor must request assistance from FEMA. This takes time, and even more time—weeks and months—for insurance adjusters to process claims and the companies to approve them and issue checks.

“This was a serious, serious, major catastrophe,” Sheriff Tony Mancuso said at the press conference today. “I don’t know how, by God’s grace, we didn’t get the storm surge…but we’re not gonna fix this overnight. Be patient.”

He spoke about someone dying from being crushed, and said six people had died of carbon monoxide from generators. Somebody who was trapped in an elevator in a high-rise had to be cut out through a wall. He pleaded for everyone to be safe.

The Entergy representative said there had been “very extensive damage” to the grid, with 615,000 customers without power in the Gulf region; at least 119,000 were in the Lake Charles area. This was only a portion of customers, as there are other providers facing the same problems—only one of which represents “44,000 [electrical] meters.”

More than thirteen thousand linemen and support personnel were already working or on their way, but, “We will not sacrifice safety for speed,” the Entergy rep said. “I will suggest you be prepared for weeks [without power].”

A Lake Charles city administrator compared recovery efforts to a train, which starts powerfully but slowly, and in “one, two, three weeks” all the local, state, and federal resources will begin to make it go faster.

“Nothin’s goin’ right, but it’s okay,” the Sheriff said. “This is gonna be a long recovery… I promise you, promise this community, we’re gonna be okay. We’re gonna have to take our time.”

 

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