Hurricane Laura recovery efforts begin in earnest

In Cameron Parish, Louisiana, residents dug through what was left of their belongings, covered roofs with tarps, and took stock of the damage.

Gerald Herbert/AP
Children participate in the cleanup efforts in Holly Beach, Louisiana, amid devastation in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, Aug. 29, 2020.

Bradley Beard calls Hurricane Laura his third strike. But he’s still not leaving. 

In 2005, Rita pushed a foot of floodwaters into his white, wooden home in Hackberry, Louisiana, a tiny Cameron Parish community 15 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

Next came Ike in 2008, which pushed water up to the floor of the long mobile home where his daughter and two granddaughters live on the same property.

Laura outstripped them both. It tore his house entirely off its foundation and dropped it a few feet away. The trailer where his daughter, Nicole, lives with her two daughters was torn apart, the walls demolished to reveal a mix of clothes, belongings, and wooden planks. About the only things still in their place were a canoe and a garbage can, tied to a steel grill buried in the ground.

A retired welder who worked at many of the refineries that dot the Louisiana coast, Mr. Beard climbed through the debris. After several minutes working to turn off the property’s water lines, he sat on a fallen log and wiped the sweat from his brow.

“I got no other place,” he said. “This is all I got.”

Across Cameron Parish, the coastal parish where Hurricane Laura crashed ashore early Thursday, residents dug through what was left of their belongings, covered now-stripped roofs with tarps, and took stock of the damage.

The Category 4 storm packed 150-mph winds and a storm surge that Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said was as high as 15 feet. Louisiana officials reported two additional deaths on Sunday, bringing the total number of deaths attributed to the storm in Louisiana and Texas to 18; more than half of those were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning caused by portable generators in homes. 

The deaths reported Sunday include a man in Calcasieu Parish who suffered a head injury after falling from a roof, the Louisiana Department of Health said. Another Calcasieu Parish resident died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

As of Sunday morning, roughly 460,000 customers were still without power, according to the Edison Electric Institute, the association of investor-owned electric companies in the Unite States.

President Donald Trump visited Louisiana and Texas on Saturday to show his support and assess the damage.

Hurricane Laura led to fires at a chlorine plant in Westlake in the hard-hit Lake Charles area. On Saturday, crews were battling a new blaze, leading authorities to broaden a shelter-in-place order to 1 mile around the plant, state Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Greg Langley said.

It was at least the second fire at the BioLab plant, which makes swimming pool chemicals, after crews extinguished one that filled the skyline around Lake Charles with billowing black smoke after Laura hit. Authorities believe chemical reactions are causing the soaked chemicals to overheat and burst into flames.

Langley said he believed the new fire was about 90% out by Saturday afternoon.

The shelter in place means any residents of the industrial area around the plant are to stay inside with windows and doors shut, in summer heat with no electricity to power air conditioners.

In Lake Charles, a city of 80,000 residents hit head on, Mayor Nic Hunter said the National Guard would begin handing out tarps Sunday to residents so they could cover damaged roofs.

The mayor of Lake Charles has cautioned people that there is no timetable for restoring electricity and that water-treatment plants “took a beating,” leaving barely a trickle of water coming out of most faucets.

Several hospitals in Calcasieu Parish and one in Cameron Parish evacuated critical patients to other facilities because of water and power issues, the state health department said. Other hospitals are operating on intermittent generator power.

Governor Edwards called Laura the most powerful hurricane to strike Louisiana, a shocking assessment in a state where Hurricane Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005. Out in western Louisiana it is the storm that came ashore a month after Katrina – Hurricane Rita – that evokes strong memories.

The damage wrought by Laura reminded many residents of Rita, which made landfall in the parish and wiped out many communities entirely, leading to one of the largest evacuations in American history.

Many people never returned to Cameron Parish, whose population fell 30% in the 2010 census, the first taken after the storm. The Beards’ next-door neighbors left for good. But the Beards stayed.

Most people in Cameron Parish said they got out ahead of Laura, a storm that forecasters warned was “unsurvivable.”

Roberta Holmes was one of the very few who decided to ride out the hurricane on Gulf Breeze Beach, on the Cameron Parish shoreline. Standing on her deck overlooking the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday, Holmes described sitting in a red leather recliner next to a window facing the water. She was confident that the home rebuilt after Rita was strong enough to withstand this storm.

Her home ended up suffering just minor damage, though the storm did uproot two palm trees she planted in front, which she christened “Rita” and “Ike.”

“I knew what it would take to survive,” she said.

Katlyn Smith found more than just damage to the roof when she returned to the Jesse James trailer park in the city on Friday to see what remained of her two-bedroom trailer. Speaking Saturday from the park by telephone, she said the wind ripped the roof off “like a sardine can. And then the walls folded in.” Many of the other trailers in the park were also decimated.

Friday night, the few remaining residents barbecued roasts, burgers and chicken in a makeshift grill before the food goes bad. Her car has a flat tire, and she has no cash on hand, so she’s not going anywhere for now.

“There is a time to cry and to be sad and there’s a time to pick up, too. You have to pick yourself up and keeping going and my strength comes from God and my fiance,” she said.

Now that the floodwaters have receded, Highway 27 leading from Lake Charles into Hackberry and the other small towns closer to the Gulf was a bustle of activity as utility workers and people pulling trailers or boats drove back and forth. The shelves were largely bare at Brown’s Grocery Store, across the street from the Beards’ property, and there’s been no electricity to pump the gas.

Not far away is a sprawling liquefied natural gas facility that Trump visited in 2019.

The Beards weren’t sure yet how they would rebuild. Bradley Beard lives on Social Security, and Nicole Beard works at a local alligator farm that ships hides internationally.

She has applied for federal aid and is hopeful that volunteers and faith groups that ordinarily respond to disasters will be able to help them clear the wreckage.

For now, they are sifting through their jumbled belongings for whatever can be salvaged, leaving food for their cat who has so far refused to come out from under the rubble. Nicole’s daughters filled a garbage bag each with clothes. She found her high school graduation tassel inside the trailer, her class year of 1999 shining in gold against the blue thread.

Her daughters insist that they stay in Cameron Parish. But she said: “I don’t know how many times you can restart from scratch.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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