Lake Charles, the Weekend After

The eye of Hurricane Laura passed over Lake Charles, Louisiana, in the early morning hours last Thursday. Friday night the storm was in Memphis, where blood-red lightning illuminated the clouds. Airliners descended over the outlet mall, landing lights ablaze, like archangels in the thunderheads, and fog swirled from the hollows. It was a surreal reminder of the continental scale of a hurricane, and the forces a city faces when one comes ashore.

A woman in a rest stop down the road was giving water to a dozen Shelties and Border Collies in cages in her minivan. Her t-shirt was for a Calcasieu Parish pool company, and her license-plate surround said Lake Charles. She said her husband had stayed for the hurricane and told her it looked like an atomic bomb had gone off. He did not expect electricity to be restored for another six months.

Outside Baton Rouge, Saturday morning, the traffic headed west on I-10 for Lake Charles got heavy, and after Lafayette, halfway there, it was reduced to a crawl. Utility-company bucket trucks, flatbeds carrying stacks of phone poles, and semis designed to be disaster-relief dormitories were among the cars. A Colorado-based FEMA team with “firefighters, paramedics, physicians, structural engineers, hazardous materials technicians, heavy rigging specialists and canine handlers” had trucks stuck in the traffic too. Their website says they “must be totally self-sufficient for the first 72 hours of a deployment.” Traffic halted after one of their trucks hit another of their trucks, blocking one lane of traffic and strewing debris on the other.

In Lake Charles, people were everywhere, already working on the problem. Cranes pulled trees off buildings and roadways, crews of chainsaw-wielding workers cut up massive sea pines and cypress, bobcats pushed tons of vegetation out of the way and stacked it for pickup, and power-company crews tended the snarls and spools of lines all over the city.

It was hard to imagine it would take even two weeks to get power restored, let alone six months. Water has already been restored in about half of the parish, though boil orders are in place. But Entergy has said that in Calcasieu Parish there are 6,500 damaged poles, more than 300 miles of downed wire, and 2,890 damaged transformers.

The impressions of the city were of competence, familiarity, calm, and even good humor. It looked like an industry.

Homeowners who had the cash were paying tree-removal, cleanup, and repair crews to do work immediately. They would file receipts later with their insurance companies, with the expectation of being reimbursed. Locals say this forces insurance companies to pay for work to get done satisfactorily and in good time. The State of Louisiana, however, says never to pay these sorts of roaming contractors, many of whom they claim are scam artists, and to give insurance companies time to do what they are meant to do. In any case, those without thousands in cash would have to wait for adjustors to start the long process of claims, which could take weeks or months.

Everyone was waiting for FEMA to start paying for relief, including hotel rooms for those with nowhere else to go. But word was the President had to view the damage, declare the area a disaster, and then the Governor could ask for funds from FEMA.

President Trump arrived in town about the time my elder son and I did on Saturday. Two VTOL aircraft flew fast and low over the house; a few minutes later they escorted two choppers in the direction of Orange, Texas, which Trump also visited.

Comments on the Fox News Facebook page, which announced Trump’s visit, said, “Dude lives on 4-hrs sleep every night. Donates his entire salary. Ivanka & Jared forgo salary, also. They are working for the American people! For free! He never needed this job, at all. He does it for you! For all of us….”

“The Shepherd looking out and continuing to herd the lord’s flock!!!”

My son and I labored around our property. We got lucky; there was little damage to the house itself. But it was still hard work, in subtropical humidity, full sun, and heat indices over 100 degrees. I was the kind of exhausted where I was mouth-breathing, and when I bent over I drooled on my shoe. But cleanup is no joke, and reports of heart attacks and heat strokes are frequent. Sleeping in the heat afterward is its own misery.

Over the weekend more than a dozen people stopped by to ask if they could help. They meant for pay, and somewhat peevishly left business cards and flyers when I said no, thanks. Many were from out of town, as far away as south Florida. One man from Florida said there was $7.85 billion to be made by companies like his, so they would not be leaving anytime soon.

NOAA says, “The cumulative costs of the 16 separate billion-dollar weather events in the U.S. in 2017 was $306.2 billion, breaking the previous cost record of $214.8 billion (2005). It is estimated that Hurricane Harvey alone had total costs of $125 billion—second only to Hurricane Katrina in the period of record, which had an approximate cost of $161 billion.” It was the 15th anniversary of Katrina.

While continuing to live directly on the Gulf coast in the Anthropocene, and enduring and recovering from its hurricanes and floods, is not what is usually meant by disaster capitalism, the sense of normalcy about the employment, sales, and renewal that comes with them should be considered.

Two women in Trump face masks and with a Trump bumper sticker offered insurance fraud as part of the deal; their company would charge us $3,200 in cash to take out two trees but would provide an invoice for our insurance company at $6,200. They were not the only ones who suggested it, and all justified the fraud by saying homeowners would get their deductibles back this way. Their pitch was not blatant; it was obviously how things were done, and I guessed insurance companies knew of it and built it into their way of doing business.

Even Trump recognized opportunities in the event. At a briefing with Lake Charles emergency officials he signed scraps of paper and handed them out, saying, “Here, sell this tonight on eBay, you’ll get ten thousand…. If I put your name down, it loses a lot of value. So just sell it tonight on eBay.”

Our neighbor across the street came out in her tank top, shorts, and makeup to direct the lawn crew she and her husband, who is swole on steroids, had hired. When she saw contractors for the power company lining up their bucket- and dump-trucks to clear standing power lines of drooping trees, she charged. She yelled, over the hydraulic pumps, and in the unimaginable scale of the disaster, that they were not under any circumstance to put limbs from anyone else’s property on the front edge of her lawn for pickup.

Yet a guy in a shiny new pickup came around not long afterward and asked if we could use water or fuel. I asked what a couple of gallons of unleaded gas would cost me. Surprised, he said it was free and gave me five gallons in a new can and told me to keep it. It was a real spirit lifter.

Outside the city, the mutual-aid society from other cities kept coming: eight Lafayette Parish police cars in a convoy, lights rolling, followed by fifteen SUVs that said only Sheriff on their sides, dozens of utility trucks and emergency vehicles, and private trucks pulling trailers with generators, water, and demolition gear.

A guy in a gas station in Mississippi had a light truck with a trailer holding a ride-on mower. He said someone was advertising on social media for laborers in Lake Charles, who would be paid 1,800 bucks a week plus free hotel. He could not find the ad again on his phone to show me, but all he needed was a little money to get there. I gave him a little, and we fist-bumped. All this in the age of social distancing.


Read more by John Griswold here.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.