“It just looks like a bomb went off:” Louisianians on recovering from Hurricane Laura

The winds shook the whole building. The fire alarm went off. Sometime, between about 2 am and 4 am Thursday, the roof of the building curled away. The rainwater came in, soaking the ceiling of the second floor apartment, dripping down the walls.

Bailey, who’s 26 and lives in Lake Charles, Louisiana, emerged from the apartment at sunrise, after riding out the storm with her boyfriend and her dad and their two pets, a Persian cat and French-Boston Terrier bulldog mix. Outside, she saw the metal awning of the building’s roof rolled up like the end of a toothpaste tube. Debris, planks of wood and pieces of soggy paper were scattered everywhere. The windows of the Lake Charles City Hall blew out, and the documents went with them.

That scene replicated across Lake Charles and the surrounding towns in Lake Calcasieu Parish, in southwestern Louisiana, the morning after Hurricane Laura swept through. The storm made landfall on the Gulf Coast as a powerful Category 4 storm, one of the strongest to ever hit the region.

Meteorologists and officials had warned of “unsurvivable” storm surge ahead of Laura’s arrival, urging residents to evacuate. But in Lake Charles, about 50 miles inland from where the hurricane made landfall, the winds — which were gusting up to 130 miles per hour — caused much of the devastation. They sliced away rooftops, pulled apart homes, flipped trees, smashed windows, and took down the power lines. At least 10 people died in Louisiana, many from falling trees.

“It just looks like a bomb went off,” Jean-Paul Duhon, 50-year-old teacher and coach at Sulphur High School, in Sulphur, Louisiana, told me. “I don’t know how many trees are left standing. Buildings are gone. Trees snapped everywhere, power lines. It’s just massive destruction all over Sulphur, Lake Charles, Carlyss, all over the place.”

The recovery is beginning, slowly. According to the Louisiana Department of Health, as of Friday, water outages were affecting more than 200,000 residents. Hundreds of thousands are without electricity in Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. On Thursday, a chemical fire at a plant in Westlake, just outside of Lake Charles, forced officials to issue a shelter-in-place order, though not everyone had a place they could shelter in.

Those who hunkered down during the hurricane came outside Thursday to assess the scope of the damage for themselves, and for their neighbors who evacuated.

A tree fell through Duhon’s house, the chimney ripped out, the roof tore away and had, by storm’s end, settled in his neighbor’s yard. A tree also squashed his truck, which he says he might be the most mad about, and so he spent Thursday driving around in his side-by-side, fielding texts and Facetiming friends and fellow coaches and students and checking in on their homes or their parents’ homes and offering status updates.

Duhon’s truck.
Photo courtesy of Jean-Paul Duhon.

Local Facebook groups were also filled with messages asking for information on various streets, or requests for food or water or gasoline. Others posted links for assistance, and local businesses offered their services: clearing trees, estimates on damage, trash removal, fencing experts.

Patrick, 21, and his family evacuated to Mississippi, and then moved a little closer, to Port Allen, Louisiana before returning Thursday toppled trees. His grandmother’s carport was crushed. “It’s basically like a movie, it’s crazy,” he said. As we spoke, he was cleaning out the fridge and deep freezer, deciding what to salvage and what to throw away.

Bailey and her family loaded their luggage and what they took from her dad’s apartment, driving over to check on her own house Thursday morning. On the way, they passed the South’s Defenders Memorial Monument, a Confederate statue had been a source of tension that summer in Lake Charles as some residents called for its removal. Earlier that month, the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury voted to keep it. But the morning after hurricane, it wasn’t there. Laura barreled through and tore down the monument herself.

A contested Confederate monument in Lake Charles is taken down by Hurricane Laura.
Bailey/Facebook

“The Lord did one good thing,” Bailey told me. “This is one good thing that came out of it. Everything else is absolutely awful and devastating.”

A natural disaster meets all the other disasters

Frankie Randazzo, a restauranteur who owns businesses in Texas and Louisiana, said he was watching the local meteorologist doing a Facebook Live from Broad Street in Lake Charles, and realizing he was seeing parts of his building flying past on the screen.

They belonged to the Panorama Music House, a 102-year-old historic building, whose facade crumbled and roof caved in. Another of his restaurants in Lake Charles, Rikenjaks fared slightly better, but the winds still damaged the roof as tree branches crashed in.

Panorama Music Hall after the hurricane.
Courtesy of Frankie Randazzo.

For Randazzo it was the latest disaster in a year of them. “We’ve just been punched in the face all year, I can’t even begin to tell you,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic and the shutdowns that followed upended small businesses, with restaurants and bars restaurants and venues for mass gatherings put in the most precarious position. In March, Randazzo shut down his establishments. He missed all the big holidays: St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day, much of crawfish season. Then they began to reopen when restrictions were lifted in May.

But as cases spiked this summer in Texas this summer, the governor reimposed restrictions, including limiting restaurant capacity and shutting bars. Louisiana closed bars again too, though Panorama and Rikenjaks followed different rules as restaurants. And at that point, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan that helped Randazzo pay his employees and his mortgages and keep his businesses afloat had run out.

Rikenjaks after the storm.
Courtesy of Frankie Randazzo.

“It’s an absolutely insane time to be in the restaurant business in the South,” Randazzo said.

But he said, he always looks for a silver lining, and he sees one in how Hurricane Laura destroyed and battered his businesses in Lake Charles. If the insurance pays out for the storm damage, it might actually offer him a respite from the economic uncertainty of the pandemic. “This could actually be a helpful thing for us, and allow us to close and cease operations under the Covid guidelines, rebuild, remodel and reopen in six to eight months, when hopefully all of this is done.”

Covid-19 delivered Louisiana a one-two punch. At the start of the pandemic, Louisiana was among the nation’s hot spots, led by a spike of cases in New Orleans. The case count decreased, only to surge again across the state this summer. Southwest Louisiana, specifically Lake Charles, had some of the highest positivity rates in the state at the beginning of August. Cases are now steadily trending down, but the economic fallout is still acute. Businesses like Randazzo’s are struggling, and tens of thousands of people are unemployed across the state. The total number of jobs lost to Covid-19 in Louisiana was already double that of Hurricane Katrina.

Now, in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, people who were already struggling to find work, pay their rent and mortgages and insurance bills, may now have to rebuild.

“I think it also makes it worse though, that people lost their jobs and insurance and they don’t have places to stay,” Bailey said of the hurricane arriving during the pandemic.

And there are concerns that the chaos of Hurricane Laura could spread the coronavirus, especially as people evacuate to places like Texas and other parts of Louisiana, either taking Covid-19 with them or bringing it back when they return. About 1.5 million people were under evacuation orders in Texas and Louisiana, and officials tried to avoid putting evacuees to large shelters, instead sending them to hotels where it would be easier to isolate.

Sarah Bonvillain, a 22-year-old recent grad, had evacuated and sheltered in a hotel in Austin with her girlfriend. Sarah’s parents’ home was badly damaged: flooding, broken windows, the roof half gone. Her girlfriend lives in the dorms at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, and can’t go back there. She texted, while waiting for her laundry, that they are trying to stay in Austin, but it’s financially draining. She says FEMA says it can’t help yet, so they were heading over to the Red Cross, after the laundry was done, to see what options they had.

She said, as for Covid-19 concerns, right now, the biggest problem is the elevator at the hotel. They’re on the fifth floor, and the elevatory is tiny, so she tries to wait to take when she can ride it alone. Other people who evacuated, like Patrick, told me, they took precautionary measures, like wearing masks.

But some questioned what the rebuilding would look like in the pandemic without electricity, in oppressive heat and humidity — if social distancing, for example, was even possible. The hurricane pushed people together. When sheltering with her dad, Bailey, said, they exchanged one of the first hugs they had in she doesn’t even know how long.

“It’s like merging, really,” Bailey said of the coronavirus and the hurricane. “I think that’s why it also just makes everything worse because everybody’s been so socially distant.”

“We stay in these houses for months and then suddenly the houses are taken away from us,” she added.

People are used to hurricanes down here in the Gulf. They’ve seen Ike, and Rita, and Harvey, and Imelda. Now Laura, another middle-of-the-alphabet wallop that’s set them back again. But Duhon said it’s going the best it can, and this storm, or anything else, isn’t going to knock them down. “We’re going to get back up and we’ll be stronger than it was before,” he said. “It’s part of living in the South, and living in America.”

Stuff happens, and you just gotta deal with it, he said. But, he like everyone else I talked to, they would like a little less stuff to happen. “I told somebody the other day,” Duhon said. “I think we should take 2020, crumple it up, throw it away, and start over again.”