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Lake Charles Was Destroyed by Hurricane Laura. America Has Already Moved On.

Like Katrina before it, Hurricane Laura has exposed disturbing inequalities—and the rest of the nation’s fundamental indifference.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Latasha Myles and Howard Anderson stand in their living room, where they were sitting when the roof blew off as Hurricane Laura passed through Lake Charles, Louisiana.

When Hurricane Laura hit last week, all I could think about was Katrina. The world considers August 29 the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. For New Orleans residents like myself, that date marks the mere beginning of a disaster that unfolded over the course of a week and then reverberated for years and years. It’s a trauma we relive with each new storm. And despite climate scientists’ many warnings to prepare for more storms ahead, the fundamental pattern of human suffering and inequity seems to repeat itself.

Hurricane Katrina passed over New Orleans on August 29, 2005. Over the next day or so, the area filled with water from the many breaches in the federally built levee system that was supposed to protect the city. My neighbors then either died or were rescued from their roofs, as the Superdome and the Convention Center filled with the city’s most vulnerable residents. Then drinking water ran out, and somehow no one could get water to my suffering neighbors for almost a week.

My partner and I, evacuated to Florida, learned about our beloved city’s destruction through the racist prism of national television. Nancy Grace was the first talking head I watched shift focus from the information we really needed onto “looting”—as if the theft of TVs and diapers represented the worst things happening during that week of death and destruction.

“I remember hearing these nightmare stories about what was happening in the Superdome, which turned out not to be true,” Evlondo Cooper told me over the phone this week. A senior writer and researcher for Media Matters who analyzed 669 news segments covering Louisiana’s last several big hurricanes, Cooper’s also a native New Orleanian whom Katrina forced out. “The mainstream media definitely played up the angle, ‘They’re animals, they’re killing and raping each other,’ but none of those segments mentioned the disproportionate impacts of storms on communities of color,” said Cooper. “And this ends up leading to public policies that don’t take into account the lived experienced and material needs of marginalized communities.”

Cooper’s last point has proven abundantly true in New Orleans in the 15 years since Katrina. Today, a tourist could look around at the cleaned-up, renovated city and forget the flood ever happened. Locals, though, don’t see an uplifting comeback story. Racial inequity still poisons everything here. Our public schools became union-busting charter schools, with community control swapped out for six-figure CEOs. Airbnb arrived in New Orleans during Katrina’s protracted housing crisis, and soon the country’s “oldest Black neighborhood,” the Treme, became the city’s newest white neighborhood, with whole blocks converted into short-term rentals—faux-tels in local parlance—that currently sit empty during the pandemic.

A local tending bar or waiting tables must endure smiling visitors constantly asking, “Were you here for Katrina?” The question immediately recalls the worst traumas of their lives. Photos of flooding from New Orleans and all over America regularly dominate social media timelines, as our climate continues to change. I personally could stand to never see another photo of any floodwaters ever again. But then Katrina’s anniversary returns and we’re all forced to remember The Big One, reliving our traumas for a mildly interested American public.

So New Orleanians were already facing triggers upon triggers by the time Hurricanes Marco and Laura appeared on the Doppler radar last week, both of them predicted to smack New Orleans right in the face. Marco petered out, but Laura tracked west and finally touched down in Louisiana’s Cameron Parish as a Category 4, with 150 mph winds. Within 24 hours, Laura caused six deaths, knocked out running water for 200,000 residents, and started at least one massive chemical fire. Hardest hit was Lake Charles, a roughly half-Black, half-white city of 80,000 people who, together, on Katrina’s anniversary, absorbed the biggest hurricane to hit Louisiana in 160 years.

After years of writing about the manmade catastrophe we call Katrina, my mind quickly goes to recurring risk factors whenever any new disaster crops up. And in the days following Hurricane Laura, I started to reach out to contacts in the region, who confirmed a familiar story.

My first worry is always Louisiana’s overabundant oil and gas infrastructure. In Lake Charles this week, Laura lit a chlorine plant on fire, bringing a shelter-in-place order down from local government to all residents close enough to inhale the fumes. Equally worrisome were the reported 1,400 active oil wells in Laura’s path, plus Louisiana’s supposedly 4,300 orphaned wells rusting away in Louisiana’s gorgeous marshes. According to the local paper, Katrina damaged 100 oil platforms and 400 pipelines, spilling almost 11 million gallons of oil into Louisiana’s singularly amazing coastal ecology. 

“It’s going to be pretty bad,” John Beard Jr., who spent 38 years with Exxon before founding his own company, Pa-can, told me. “Since Covid came along, you have fewer people flying, fewer people traveling, so there’s less demand for oil,” he said. “And this has caused a number of these facilities to reduce production, which means a reduction in force.” That, in turn, meant there weren’t really enough workers around to properly shut down these plants before Laura, and there likely won’t be enough people around to clean up the petrochemical messes Laura may have caused but that we haven’t heard about yet. Even if companies could afford enough workers, Lake Charles now lacks accommodations to house those workers. That’s to say nothing of the coronavirus risk, were companies to try to bring in people temporarily for cleanup.

A fisherman and seafood fan myself, I also worry about Louisiana’s fishing industry, rebuilt after Katrina only to be dealt another crushing blow by BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. So I called to check on Captain Gary Peloquin of Hackberry Guide Service, who for the last 30 years has helped tourists catch redfish and trout near Lake Charles. “There’s not much of Hackberry left. Everything’s been flattened,” reported Peloquin. “My boat was under my carport, and a tree so big you can’t put your arm around it smashed down on my carport,” he said. “The fishing itself isn’t going to be terrible since these storms do push the fish in. Problem is, nobody can fish if they don’t have boats!” 

Commercial fisherman with strategic savings and insurance will survive, he added. “It’s the crabbers and shrimpers with no insurance, who pay bills by the seat of their pants. Those are the guys who will be killed off. But fishing is so far from my mind right now,” he admitted. “We’re on our third day now, and no one in Lake Charles has any electricity or water.”  

Because, during Katrina, New Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman left prison inmates locked in their cells as the rest of the city evacuated, new hurricanes always make me worry for those incarcerated here in Louisiana, the world’s incarceration capital. Holly Hein Parker, who spoke to me from Houston, said her husband was evacuated by bus for Hurricane Laura from Gist State Jail in Beaumont, Texas, to nearby Ferguson. “They moved 3,400 incarcerated people in all. And if they’re moving that many people at once … I don’t see how they could be doing Covid prevention,” she said. “My husband says they were all packed in a gymnasium together like sardines.… When I asked if they were taking Covid protections, my husband just laughed.” The pandemic has already kept her husband from taking the special classes necessary for his parole, and kept him in jail for unnecessary extra months. Parker now fears Laura may keep him imprisoned even longer.

Lake Charles is also part of Louisiana’s famous Acadiana region, a central location for almost all of the zydeco bands in the world. “The entirety of Lake Charles, from Cameron on the Gulf Coast all the way up to DeQuincy, Deridder, and Shreveport, it’s complete and total destruction,” said Lake Charles native accordion player and bandleader Sean Ardoin, great-grandson of Creole accordionist Amédé Ardoin, grandson of famous Creole musician Bois Sec Ardoin, and son of Lawrence “Black” Ardoin, who led the Ardoin Brothers band. “At my house I have trees down, but I prayed so hard they wouldn’t hit the house that it worked,” Ardoin laughed. “I do have roof damage. And I had a really well-built gazebo, a very big structure, that’s now leaning against my house.”

Ardoin fears the ways in which Laura will build upon all of 2020’s other roadblocks. “Being a musician was already jacked up because of Covid,” he told me. “I’d finally gotten an agent, to help take advantage of these Grammy nominations I’ve had. Then everything shut down. We luckily have gotten a few online gigs, and a TV commercial that will pay some bills … but then all of a sudden Laura comes through, and we literally cannot live in our own homes for weeks, maybe months. I’m lucky that a few people have reached out and blessed me with finances,” he said. Ardoin is doing better than many of his fellow Acadian musicians. “The music will survive because we always survive,” Ardoin assures me. “But it’s taking a hit now.”

Lake Charles is not generally thought of as a place for young people, given the draw of bigger cities like New Orleans, Baton Rouge, or at least Lafayette. But 22-year-old Breon Robinson’s online activism on behalf of her destroyed hometown of Lake Charles has caught many people’s attention. “We have so many generations here, including my generation,” says Robinson, whose father helped run Lake Charles’s first-ever Black radio station, and whose grandfather taught her Creole French. As Laura bore down, Robinson’s mom worked a 50-hour shift for city government, helping organize and evacuate residents.

Robinson and her mother escaped to Spring, Texas, about two and a half hours away, before the storm hit last Thursday. They returned to a devastated community. “We had a whole family die of carbon monoxide poisoning from their generator. And then we’re not getting the media attention, no celebrities. I realize there’s a lot going on with coronavirus, the election year, plus Lake Charles is not a known city, but.… ” She trailed off.

I felt that. I remember how New Orleans struggled to keep the media interested in our years-long Katrina plight. In these coming weeks, I’d guess Lake Charles will receive almost no coverage, even though its suffering is just beginning. Through a media lens, I can see how Laura’s destruction would not play as sexy as Katrina’s in New Orleans. Wind damage just isn’t as gruesomely photogenic as a well-known American city filled with poisonous floodwater.  

“I feel positive, though,” Robinson added. “[Being young] in Lake Charles is hard … but we also have a lot of people here who are growing, budding entrepreneurs, and budding rappers and artists and activists, and people who want to see Lake Charles grow and be a better place. We’re taking a stand for our city now.”

These words inspired me—to a point. New Orleans survived Katrina, after all. We are still here. But climate change still exists, and that next Friday morning, as Laura died over Arkansas, weather services began tracking two brand-new tropical disturbances swirling around out there in the Atlantic Ocean, headed toward the Gulf of Mexico. And again, the clouds gathered over Louisiana.