Updated: August 28, 2020 9:53:46 am
Written by Rick Rojas, Manny Fernandez and Richard Fausset
Soon after Hurricane Laura slammed into the Louisiana coast in the dark of night, a city of oil refineries and casinos some 30 miles inland awakened to scenes of unfolding chaos: A 22-story contemporary office tower in Lake Charles with windows stripped and smashed. A casino boat, wedged under the bridge over the Calcasieu River. Plumes of dark gray smoke from a chemical fire staining the blue of a post-storm sky.
Wind gusts, measured at up to 132 mph at the local airport, sheared the top of a sky bridge, tossed an RV on its side and downed power lines and trees. It even toppled a soaring monument to Confederate soldiers that the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury had declined to take down this month despite calls to do so from Black Lives Matter activists.
John O’Donnell, 33, a leadership consultant who had fled Lake Charles earlier in the week with a bottle of bourbon and a cowboy hat in his passenger seat, was back in town Thursday morning surveying the large hole in the roof of his home and taking stock of his downtown block, a mess of felled trees and power lines.
“The neighborhood is bad. Real bad,” he said. “It’s worse than Rita.”
In a region so accustomed to epic hurricanes that residents recall them by name, Laura was one of the strongest on record to hit the US mainland. It continued to carve a path of destruction and fear as it chugged north through Arkansas as a tropical depression Thursday night, and was responsible for at least six deaths in Louisiana — most of them caused by trees falling on homes.
A day earlier, dire warnings of the storm sent more than a half-million people scurrying for safety on both sides of the Louisiana-Texas line. Hundreds of evacuees ended up in subsidized hotel rooms in lieu of large shelters, which government officials were wary of opening for fear of spreading a coronavirus that has already brought dozens of deaths to the region.
And although property damage appeared extensive, and the cost in dollars and lives was still being assessed Thursday afternoon, officials in both states sounded notes of cautious relief: Although Laura made landfall with 150 mph winds, its storm surge, predicted to come in at an “unsurvivable” maximum of 20 feet, proved to be a little more than half as high on the Louisiana coast, in part because the storm moved through so quickly.
“It is clear that we did not sustain and suffer the absolute catastrophic damage that we thought was likely based on the forecast that we had last night,” Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana said in a Thursday afternoon news conference. “But we have sustained a tremendous amount of damage. We have thousands and thousands of our fellow citizens whose lives are upside down.”
The storm was one of a pair that threatened the Gulf Coast almost simultaneously this week. Tropical Storm Marco fizzled Monday, but Hurricane Laura grew to an unsettling Category 4 as it threaded a path between the Gulf’s two great cities, Houston and New Orleans, both still traumatized by monumental storm-related flooding.
On Wednesday, Margaret Orr, a veteran New Orleans TV meteorologist still haunted by memories of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, began crying as she told her viewers of Laura’s destructive potential.
The storm appeared to threaten both East Texas, inundated in 2017 by Hurricane Harvey, and west Louisiana, which was battered along with southeast Texas in 2005 by Hurricane Rita. But the Texans eventually realized that they were largely in the clear.
“We dodged the bullet,” said County Judge Jeff Branick, the top elected official for Jefferson County in Texas, which includes the cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur, in a Thursday morning text. “Widespread power outages, but not the property damage, carnage and flooding we’ve seen in past storms.”
The toll in Louisiana was greater, with nearly 404,000 customers without power Thursday morning compared with about 104,000 without power in Texas.
President Donald Trump will visit Texas and Louisiana and possibly Arkansas this weekend, he said at a Thursday news conference at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The president said he had considered postponing his Thursday speech at the Republican National Convention. But “now it turned out we got a little bit lucky,” he said in regards to the hurricane.
Lake Charles, population 78,000, saw some of the most concentrated and visible damage — not unlike the ruin it experienced when Rita tore through in 2005.
Building back from Rita had been a process that consumed Lake Charles for more than a decade. Now the work would begin again. But O’Donnell said the city would rise to the challenge.
“I’m not proud of everything here, but I’m absolutely proud of the people,” he said. “It doesn’t matter: Black, white, yes we have our problems. There are all of these issues. But the people here love each other, and in times like this we band together and help each other. Especially in times like this. That’s why we stay.”
Mike Steele, a spokesman for Louisiana’s emergency management office, said it would take time for officials to take stock of the damage in coastal communities where there were “only a few routes to get in and out.” But by noon Thursday, he said, his office had no reports of entire neighborhoods trapped in floodwaters and in dire need of rescue. “We’re optimistic that we did better than what was expected.”
Still, state officials warned that water levels across Louisiana were dangerously high, particularly in Vermilion Parish and southwest Iberia Parish, coastal areas where water levels continued to rise Thursday afternoon. Aly Neel, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Health, said there were at least 67 inoperable water systems around the state, some because of power outages but others that were perhaps more seriously damaged, affecting more than 220,000 people.
Sheriff Michael Couvillon of Vermilion Parish said officials had expected Hurricane Laura to bring 12 to 18 feet of storm surge to the parish’s lowest-lying areas, which faced a mandatory evacuation ahead of the storm. But by Thursday afternoon, Couvillon said, the parish saw just half that.
“God definitely blessed us,” he said.
In Cameron Parish, search-and-rescue helicopters flew low over Holly Beach, a small coastal community in southwestern Louisiana a short drive from where the hurricane made landfall. But they kept on flying — there was no one to rescue.
Although dozens of homes and trailers had been damaged or destroyed, residents had evacuated ahead of time.
Across the community, green-and-white street signs that had been ripped from their poles were littered on roadsides. There were bent trees and mangled stop signs. Air conditioners dangled from awnings by a few wires. Pieces of roofs and walls covered the streets.
These were the ravages not of the water but of the wind.
Elsewhere, experts were still trying to assess the damage to the petrochemical plants and other heavy industry that are the lifeblood of the regional economy — and a source of potential environmental nightmares in the face of Gulf storms that are becoming more intense as a result of climate change that has been unleashed by the burning of those same fuels.
Phillips 66, Citgo and Motiva have major plants that were in the path of the storm. Inspections may be delayed by flooding and power outages, officials said. Gasoline and other fuel prices may not be elevated severely, at least in the short term, since there are ample inventories.
The fire that blackened the skies over Lake Charles originated at a storm-damaged chemical plant in the suburb of Westlake. Col. Kevin Reeves, superintendent of the Louisiana State Police, said that an undetermined amount of chlorine products began reacting and decomposing before generating heat and burning, releasing chlorine gas into the atmosphere. A shelter-in-place directive was issued for the surrounding communities.
A few miles to the east, the members of Lord’s Outreach Worship Center had spent the night praying, pleading for help and seeking a distraction from the barrage of wind and rain that shredded the surrounding neighborhood.
In this section of the city, like much of Lake Charles, roofs had been shaved off homes and businesses and trees had been toppled and upended. Severed tree limbs were strewn about yards and roadways, and ribbons of loose utility lines draped the otherwise empty streets.
On Thursday afternoon, a parade of utility crews and rescue workers filed in on nearby Interstate 10 from the east, their trucks bullied by the wind and rain still pounding parts of Louisiana. Along the highway, entire thickets of trees bowed toward the north, bent by the wind. Barns and sheds had collapsed, and large swaths of land were littered with debris.
Kolise Houston, 41, sat on a curb outside the church with a Sprite and a bag of Doritos. She described the “booming and bamming” of the powerful wind the night before. Houston, who lives in a nearby apartment complex, was also curious to know what had happened to her home.
“I have no clue what it looks like,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s still standing. I hope it’s still standing.”
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