Xander Peters
A view of the Living Word Christian Center on historic Ryan Street in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on July 13, 2021. In the weeks after winds and rains from Hurricanes Laura and Delta damaged the city, residents lined up in their cars for supplies donated and handed out by the church and its congregation.

Rebuild or relocate? Storms leave Louisiana city facing tough choices.

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Almost a year ago, back-to-back hurricanes severely damaged the city of Lake Charles, Louisiana. Among thousands who relocated was Jennifer Landry, who left her hometown alongside her husband and son under a mandatory evacuation as Hurricane Laura approached.

She and her family, now in nearby Lafayette, are still struggling to recover and still haven't returned. “A lot of us literally lost everything and we have nothing to go back to,” Ms. Landry says.

Why We Wrote This

With weather events like hurricanes growing more severe, a rising number of people are being forced from their homes by winds and rain. A key question is what happens after that.

Monty and Nashonna Aucoin also lost the home they were living in. While similarly striving to rebuild their lives, they are determined to do it back in Lake Charles – partly due to the support they draw from a close-knit church and its determined pastor. 

“Lake Charles, that’s home for us,” Ms. Aucoin says.  

Their challenges, and their stay-or-go choices, hold larger lessons in a time of more severe storms due to climate change.

“We see a lot of similarities” between modern climate migrants and those who fled the Plains states during the Dust Bowl, says Carlos Martín, an expert on communities at the Urban Institute. But today’s migrants are “often on a household level, rather than a whole community-level decision-making process.”

After back-to-back storms struck southwest Louisiana last year, Monty and Nashonna Aucoin were left without a home to return to. Many of their friends and family, in a similar position, decided not to go back, citing the exhausting rebuilding process that lay ahead. 

But the Aucoin’s have a different plan. They have a dance studio to run. They own land, even if the mobile home on it didn’t survive the intense winds.  

“Lake Charles, that’s home for us,” Ms. Aucoin says.  

Why We Wrote This

With weather events like hurricanes growing more severe, a rising number of people are being forced from their homes by winds and rain. A key question is what happens after that.

They’re still living in a camper trailer the family is renting from friends. In the past year, they’ve also had to depend on the generosity of their church’s congregation, the Living Word Christian Center. It hasn’t always been much – an occasional $50 gift card to Walmart, some supplies. 

“To be honest with you, the money wasn’t meeting much of what we needed,” Mr. Aucoin says. What mattered was, their church was there for them during their time of need. “It made us not give up.” 

Business dreams. Support from a church. A piece of land. 

Such are the tenuous threads that are giving some residents the determination to rebuild their lives in a small, close-knit but heavily damaged city. For others who lack this fabric of connection and support, the impetus has been to restart their lives elsewhere. The larger message of Lake Charles: In a time of more severe storms due to climate change the recovery of communities is far from automatic even as people strive for ways forward.

“It’s clear that people are beginning to kind of question if that logic of rebuild and return makes sense,” says Dr. Elizabeth Fussell, a researcher at Brown University who studies population and environment. “Not only, does the logic of it make sense, but are the resources actually there?” 

The challenges and peoples’ fortitude in response are especially visible in places like Lake Charles. It’s a low-income city, with nearly 23% of its population living below the federal poverty level, according to a 2019 Census estimate. Over the course of nine months, the citizens of Louisiana’s fifth-largest city have found themselves in the middle of three federally declared weather disasters – Hurricanes Laura and Delta, and then Winter Storm Viola, which, in February, froze over and broke critical infrastructure in cities from central Texas to Alabama. 

A church rallies together

After each disaster, many have been displaced from their homes.

At the Living Word Christian Center, Bishop Joe Banks saw to it that prayer among his congregation continued in the wake of each storm. He set up a phone line for folks to call if they felt the urge to pray together. He phoned members of the congregation individually to check on them. He told them to stay strong. 

“From Day One, he’s given us a lot of faith,” Ms. Aucoin says. 

Day One began in late August 2020, when Hurricane Laura made landfall with winds up to 150 miles per hour in nearby Cameron, Louisiana. Weeks later, in early October, Hurricane Delta formed in the Gulf of Mexico and followed up on Laura’s damage with more than 100 mph winds. 

Xander Peters
Bishop Joe Banks, the Living Word Christian Center's leader, surveys ongoing renovation work by construction crews on July 13, 2021. The church in Lake Charles, Louisiana, hasn't been operational since last year. Its congregation has been holding services in the church's gym.

The storms left Lake Charles in shambles. Like the Aucoin family, many of its citizens were scattered from New Orleans to Little Rock to Memphis and beyond. Bishop Banks returned to their church to discover it had taken on as much as $2 million in damage. The windows that beckon in light during Sunday morning services were blown out. Water seeped into the walls. Nearly a year later, services are still being held in the church’s gym.

Even before the storms the city's population was declining; after the storms the exodus picked up pace.  

Current population estimates aren’t available, but data from the U.S. Postal Service found that Lake Charles witnessed more out-migration between 2019 and 2020 than any of the 926 metro areas included in its survey. The tally found a decline of nearly 7% in 2020, from the city’s prior-year population of 77,000. The pattern here hints at how people, perhaps especially in low-income coastal cities like this one, may increasingly question where to stake their future in a period of more intense storms – and that permanently relocating can for many be the most feasible option. 

Relocation on the rise

This echoes a trend that’s not just national but global. Worldwide, more than 30 million people were displaced as a result of disasters last year, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva, Switzerland, which uses data to better understand shifts in worldwide migration patterns. More than 1.7 million of those displaced were living in the U.S.

The climate crisis is widely seen as a leading impetus behind movements that researchers predict will become even more dramatic in the coming decades. University of Georgia researchers estimated in 2017 that continuing sea level rise alone could force 4 million to 13 million Americans to flee their homes in coastal regions by 2100. 

“We see a lot of similarities” between modern climate migrants and some 2 million or more who fled the Plains states during the 1930s Dust Bowl, says Carlos Martín, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. But “I think the difference we’re seeing here is that [today’s climate migrants are] often on a household level, rather than a whole community-level decision-making process.” 

Among those who relocated from Lake Charles at the household level are folks like Jennifer Landry, who left her hometown alongside her husband and son when the mandatory evacuation came down prior to Hurricane Laura making landfall. For the first few months, the family was provided with shelter in a hotel in New Orleans. Since then they’ve been living in a FEMA trailer in Lafayette, about 75 miles away, while Ms. Landry draws federal unemployment and attempts to find a job. Her husband is on disability, she says.

With the recovery of Lake Charles public schools in doubt, some 4,000 students have yet to return – their families apparently part of the diaspora.  

Ms. Landry and her family initially planned on returning to Lake Charles once they were back on their feet. But their top-floor apartment was completely destroyed during the first storm. They lost nearly everything they owned, Ms. Landry says. When they attempted to return to retrieve what they could, what was left of the ceilings collapsed on them while they sorted through their waterlogged possessions. For her, it was heartbreaking. 

“A lot of us literally lost everything and we have nothing to go back to,” Ms. Landry says. “The few places that they did have available, they made the rent three times what it’s even worth.” 

Research finds that the longer people like the Landry family are away from their home cities after a hurricane, for example, the less likely they are to return. In fact, places that are struggling economically can be almost primed for a post-disaster exodus.

When Dr. Fussell examined the population exodus seen in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and then Rita’s havoc across the Gulf Coast region in 2005, she and her colleagues found that Louisiana’s largest city saw many lifelong residents eventually return. Yet many rural parishes across southeast Louisiana did not experience a similar type of population recovery. 

When “we’re living in prosperous times, we can recover,” Dr. Fussell says. “But now we’re experiencing rare events really frequently and we’re living in not so prosperous times, because of the pandemic recession, it’s not clear that we’ll be able to recover the way we have in the past.” 

“We have to transform Lake Charles” 

The morning after Hurricane Laura was quiet across Lake Charles, save the sound of chainsaws. 

Downed telephone lines and pine trees, snapped in half like giant twigs, littered the streets. Road signs were bent and mangled. Windows in downtown office towers were blown out as if bombs had gone off. 

“The whole city was in really bad shape,” Bishop Banks says. “Whether you’re rich, poor, white, Black, it didn’t matter. Everybody had some type of devastation.” 

Bishop Banks and his congregation swung into action. Members handed out food, water, beds, clothes – anything anyone throughout the city might need during extended water and electricity outages.

Mr. Banks’ faith and his mission to the congregation, he says, has been the steadying force that’s kept him grounded during the city’s trying times. 

It’s also why he remains optimistic that many church members will return, even though he’s witnessed the mental and physical toll the storms’ aftermath has had on them. Telling of two people who died recently from drug overdose, he says his focus is on how to help others rise rather than sink. 

“The Bible says that without a vision, the people perish,” Mr. Banks says. 

That’s why it’s crucial for city leaders to get the rebuilding process right, he adds. 

Lake Charles city councilman Craig Marks says he understands the need. The way forward, he says, “is to rebuild – rebuild all the businesses and all of the homes we lost to the disasters” to draw citizens back to town. 

It’s a tall challenge. Many homeowners lacked adequate insurance. And while most residents haven’t moved away, a sea of boarded up windows along Ryan Street, the city’s historic corridor, is testament to the gaps left in the local economy. Blue tarps abound on unrepaired residential rooftops. 

But Councilman Marks says city leaders are attempting to lay the groundwork for revival. Incentives for locals like a tax break last year and waiving water bills was a start, but the future rests on who they’re eventually capable of attracting to the city – a younger crowd, in essence. 

“I think the consensus of the council is that’s our target age, because that’s our future,” Councilman Marks says. “We have to transform Lake Charles. It’s going to take a lot more than just the [petrochemical industry] being here. We’re going to have to dip our hand into entertainment and different things like that” to incentivize Louisiana locals to stay home, as well as to lure nearby Texans to relocate and to eventually bring the city’s natives back home. 

If it goes as hoped, the sound of saws and hammers will increasingly replace the memory of those post-storm chainsaws. New buildings will spring up as others are repaired. 

“I do believe there’s always some light at the end of the tunnel,” Mr. Banks says. “I’m the type of person who even in the middle of a storm, I believe that you can come out and get to the other side better than before. I always say, whenever there’s devastation, prepare for restoration.”

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