Posted on August 31, 2022
Over the last two years, Louisiana has been hit by two of the strongest hurricanes in the state’s history. From Hurricanes Laura and Delta striking Cameron Parish just weeks apart in 2020, to Hurricane Ida bringing destruction in its wake through the bayou parishes nearly a year later. It has been a challenging road to recovery and a lot more needs to be done to make sure people aren’t falling through the cracks.
Hurricane Laura grew from category 1 to category 4 in the span of just two days. When it made landfall on August 27th it had a peak intensity of 150 mph winds. The eye of the storm passed right over Lake Charles.
The National Weather Service estimates that 17 feet of water flowed through Creole. Storm surge inundated about all of Cameron Parish. But the wind damaged hundreds of thousands of buildings — estimates for damage in the state are around $17 billion for the storm. Just six weeks later Hurricane Delta hit, bringing a new wave of damage.
Bringing back Lake Charles
Following two storms, Lake Charles struggled to get the funding it needed to begin the recovery process. Mayor Nic Hunter was speaking anywhere he could to get Lake Charles’ story out and call on Congress to get aid to them sooner. Now, two years after the storm, the city has come a long way.
“It was just widespread damage,” said George Swift, president and CEO of SWLA Economic Development Alliance.
Two years after Hurricane Laura rode through Lake Charles, there are still signs of her force all around. But the city is beginning to blossom again.
“A lot of people forget that she was one of the most powerful storms to hit this country since we started recording data. 150 years ago. Her winds were absolutely catastrophic… That was enough to be quite a punch in the gut,” said Mayor Nic Hunter.
Thousands evacuated for Laura and again weeks later for Hurricane Delta. Over 10,000 were displaced – about 4,000 have not yet returned two years later.
“That’s due to the housing situation. Many of the rental homes and apartments in the low to mid price range were destroyed because they were older structures,” Swift said.
Stronger houses are being rebuilt — all without touching the federal funds, according to the mayor.
“About 90 to 95% of the housing that was available pre-Laura, we’ll be back online at the end of this calendar year,” Hunter said.
He said the city’s economy is nearing what it was before the pandemic. But workers need affordable housing and a nationwide contractor shortage isn’t helping. The Lake Charles Chamber of Commerce said many are still waiting for insurance payouts.
“But there’s still at least 2,000 homes or businesses that are in litigation with insurance companies,” Swift said.
Federal aid is finally starting to roll through southwest Louisiana after incredible delays in the congressional appropriation. Hunter and his team took to the national media to put the heat on Congress. Now, Hunter is more optimistic that the money is there to bring Lakes Charles back.
“For us to be where we are today, we still have strides to make,” Hunter said. “There’s a lot of blue tarps out there and a lot of homes that literally haven’t been touched since Hurricane Laura. But there’s an equitable and commensurate federal response. Finally, we can say that now.”
While they don’t believe what happened in 2020 will be a yearly occurrence, some areas of town now double as shelters. Programs like Just Imagine SWLA have storm resiliency in mind with the rebuilding and expansion of the city.
“I had never evacuated until I was an adult, and so the fact that now evacuating is a normal part of life every few years and, in our case in 2020, twice… we have got to pay attention to,” said Sara Judson, president and CEO of Community Foundation of Southwest Louisiana.
In business, too, there is exponential growth. One business has made a full recovery. In the months it was closed, it served as a place for people to get a hot meal while the city cleared away the damage.
When Laura hit, the ceiling opened up and let in several inches of water. Otherwise, the building fared pretty well after being fixed up after a major fire years before.
“It was just crazy. And we all really struggled with it. But we had recently rebuilt it. So luckily it was a new building and it fared really well compared to everything else,” said Nikki LaFuria, daughter of the owner.
Within a couple of days of the storm, locals contacted Paulina asking if they could use the kitchen to cook hot meals and empty out their freezer.
“They were feeding like hundreds and hundreds of people here every day for, gosh, maybe a month or two, a really long time,” LaFuria said.
Once the kitchen began to mold over from the water and lacked power, the team moved to the parking lot. Now, the business is swinging with busy lunch hours, Cajun food, and dancing around the room. They hear stories of people going home to make more repairs and fight with insurance companies.
“People are still suffering immensely. Like my personal home, still not rebuilt. Like, we are still doing drywall and which is nothing compared to so many,” LaFuria said.
She sees the worry for another disaster but they hope that’s years off. Seeing the city rebuilt is a comfort, a sign some people may come back.
“This is a great city. It is a great community. And, you know, sure, we have had natural disasters. We may have more, but how we recovered was something that, to me, was nothing short of inspiring,” LaFuria said.
Her family resolutely stands together in the belief that Lake Charles is a special place. From hot meals together at a table, to picking each other up when they are down, and always being ready to rebuild if a storm comes calling.
In August of 2021, Hurricane Ida sped through the Gulf to tie Laura as one of the strongest hurricanes to hit the state.
Once over the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Ida burst with energy. The day before landfall it was just a category 2. Less than 24 hours later when it made landfall, it had exploded into a strong category 4 storm. Ida made landfall just before noon on August 29th at Port Fourchon with sustained winds of 150 mph.
Hundreds of thousands were without power for days after the storm and gas stations ran dry south of I-10, causing the federal government to release some of the strategic petroleum reserve to help. A total of 26 people died as a result of the storm.
A call for help down the bayou
“Down the stairs. It was coming down like Niagara Falls,” said Courtney Breaux of Houma.
Breaux, her husband, and three kids rode out the storm in their Houma home. Water filled the house after parts of the roof blew off. While she said they’ll never stay for a storm again, the real pain came in the months after.
“Took us almost a full two months to get the camper. So we were actually living in a saturated, falling-down house. We slept on air mattresses in one room,” Breaux said.
After sending reports to the insurance company, it took weeks to get someone on the phone. They fought with adjusters to see the full damage of the house, some claiming part of the house was salvageable – when it was a danger to them. Promised checks were long delayed by the insurance company which now is pulling out of the state as a whole.
“It was just every time, it was promises and promises and the ball kept getting dropped. You know, it was the message of they would quit or they were overwhelmed or whatever the case may be,” Breaux said.
After involving an attorney, the money started to roll in for repairs but getting the money from the mortgage company came with more weeks of waiting.
“We just recently settled out, like probably about a month ago… It’s been almost a year and it’s almost a year since the storm,” Breaux said.
A major challenge is getting contractors who are approved to do the work and willing to drive to the more remote areas when contractors are in short supply nationwide.
“So you take two steps forward and then kind of like four steps back? You think you’re doing something good, you get some money and you’re like, ‘Oh, finally, we got this,’ and you cross that hurdle. And then there’s another hurdle,” Breaux said.
It’s a similar issue down the bayou where some of Louisiana’s state-recognized tribes live.
“It’s a question, not so much of how you remove all rules, regulations, and protections because that’s problematic in and of itself. It’s a question of how you remove the barriers to access that certain populations have,” said Allessandra Jerolleman, a senior fellow with the Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy at Tulane University.
The tribes have lived along the marshes of Louisiana for hundreds of years. But as it erodes, it makes their way of living more difficult.
“Lots of our people are traditional harvesters. You know, they shrimp, they crab, they fish. You know, others work in lots of other different fields. I mean, you know, so we’ve evolved, but we’re still a very traditional community,” said Chief Shirell Parfait Dardar of the Grand Caillou Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe.
“I knew when he came back, he couldn’t talk. I knew it was gone,” Chief Parfait Dardar said.
Her neighbors, elders in the tribe, picked up and left. They sold their damaged property to her family to get a roof over her kids’ heads. They lived in the kitchen of the house until they could fix the rest. That move disqualified her from a lot of the financial assistance programs.
Farther south, many of the Pointe-au-Chien tribal members who live along the Gulf don’t have insurance because the cost is too much. Some homes show signs of repairs, while others struggle to get started.
“The beginning went pretty well. You know we were getting donations, we were getting volunteers for clean up,” said Cherie Matherne, a member of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe. “Once that was done it’s been very difficult to rebuild. I have not started rebuilding. My house still sits the way that it did a year ago.”
Both the tribes and those who live in southern Terrebonne and Lafourche fear the day when they could be forced to move farther inland.
“Part of our tribe’s plan, our community’s plan is to absolutely protect and preserve, you know, what we have left in our community, not just for us, but for all living beings. We are not here alone,” Chief Parfait Dardar said.
They continue to communicate with the state on the unique needs of people in the bayou communities and push for resiliency centers, insurance reform, and any other measures that can speed up recovery and limit future devastation.
Coastal communities feel the brunt of inaction
On the shores of Grand Isle, the road to recovery is still long. There are many houses that look like they have not even been touched since Hurricane Ida came through. The mayor said one of the biggest priorities is focusing on coastal restoration in order to better protect the barrier island.
“We are the front line, if another major hurricane cuts this island up, what’s going to happen is you’ll probably have 8-10 feet of water in New Orleans or St. Charles Parish. We just feel like sometimes we don’t count. They think they want us to wash away,” Mayor David Camardelle said.
Mayor Camardelle is doing everything he can to protect the community he’s lived in for decades. Being a barrier island, they are no stranger to storms but as the coast washes away, he’s trying to do what he calls “Cajun engineering” to protect against the next storm.
“I’m just aggravated. You know, the season is here today and no one ever got twelve gaps in the levee,” Camardelle said. “And I’ve got a bulldozer pushing dirt to try to see what we can do on the beach. But it shouldn’t take that long with the federal government.”
There have been major projects to improve other barrier islands across the coast such as the Trinity-East islands, Spanish Pass, and the Terrebonne Basin Islands funded through money from the oil spill payout.
“The barrier islands are a physical demarcation right there, the line between the Gulf of Mexico and our coastal bays,” said Brenn Haase, executive director of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “So they’re important in that way, kind of from an ecological perspective, separating kind of the, again, sort of the deepwater Gulf of Mexico with our more shallow bays and our estuaries that are more inland.”
For those who live on Grand Isle, it’s not just the coastal protection that makes the island important. To them, the island is a magical place.
“You wake up in the morning, you look at a Gulf breeze. You know, my little granddaughter was sitting on the porch looking at the Gulf and saying, ‘Papi, this is quite nice.’ And she just sees the dolphins right in the water,” Camardelle said.
With each powerful storm, insurance rates have skyrocketed for coastal communities causing some to not want to return after Ida or they’re considering packing it up for good and moving inland.
“Can’t afford the insurance for the town hall to city hall,” Camardelle said. “So I want to keep that money to keep my budget just alive, to keep a steady check for my employees and health insurance.”
The island is faced with a lot of the issues the bayou communities are facing with delayed insurance payouts, contractors not wanting to make the trip down south, and costs being too much to even begin work. Camardelle will keep fighting to rebuild and believes more can be done to prevent such catastrophic damage.
“I was raised to give you the last dollar out of your wallet to help somebody. That’s what I did. I do that every day. I feed people whatever I got, you know? And I don’t believe in cutting off water and gas. It just pays me later. That’s what I do,” Camardelle said. “As long as there is one grain of sand to plant the American flag, we’re not going nowhere. I can promise you that. You know, I appreciate everything everybody does. It’s tough. And I think, you know, if I need to run higher up to wake up America, wake up somebody to tell them that, you know, we belong to America and we need to protect the little towns.”
He has made multiple trips to Washington D.C. to share the island’s story. Congressman Garret Graves said he’s someone fighting to help them.
“You can’t just go out there and build protection after a storm happens, that’s not helpful. You can’t come in and charge people unaffordable insurance rates, that’s not helpful. We’ve got to be more proactive and lean forward,” Rep. Graves said.
A major issue after Hurricane Laura was the long delay in Congress sending money, Graves says that process has to be faster. It took over a year to get the federal appropriations for Lake Charles to get aid. After Ida, it took a month.
When it comes to coastal projects, Graves said the process is always slow. Sometimes it can take over 40 years for a project to get any movement and it takes convincing of the critical need.
It is not just one-time projects, with more storms the coast will have an ongoing need for support and upkeep on the levees, islands, and other protections.
“These islands move, as we’ve talked about. The sand moves inland. Typically, they roll over on themselves or move backwards,” Haase said. “As that happens, sediment tends to be lost from them. So if nothing is done to maintain these things, they will be gone over time.”
Louisiana is a unique situation with how the Gulf and rivers impact the geography and the coastal protection projects are being watched around the globe.
“You can’t replace south Louisiana. While we’re experiencing some challenges with our coastal loss, our community sustainability and resilience in some cases, this is also an opportunity for us because what is happening to our communities now is predicted to happen to coastal communities across the United States and around the world,” Rep. Graves said.
Grand Isle is just the tip of the spear as the Congressman described it.
“The bottom line is we are on the front line and if we don’t protect this little island, that’s more water, more energy coming in,” Camardelle said.
But all the way up the bayous and into the big cities the impacts of climate change and the powerful storms are going to continue to be devastating but they don’t have to be. The people of south Louisiana will keep rebuilding.
Solutions from the top
Governor John Bel Edwards has been in office during the recent storms and how they were addressed both before and after will be a major part of his legacy. Shannon Heckt sat down with him to hear his response to the key issues around the state when it comes to recovery.
Don’t forget Louisiana
What do all these stories mean at the end of the day? It means that Louisiana is still hurting from storms in the rearview, with the potential of more storms on the horizon.
A lot needs to be done from changing the federal response procedures to passing legislation on the state level to help those most impacted, to simply not forgetting about those who are not yet back on their feet.
Louisiana is four times more likely to be hit by a hurricane than Texas or Florida. Another storm will come, but they don’t have to be as devastating during and after the clouds roll in.
Keep Louisiana in your hearts, and keep fighting for a better tomorrow.