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Coastal Louisianans Feeling Neglected After Hurricane Laura Confront The Cost Of Rebuilding Again

Tegan Wendland
Spencer and Carol Owens' home is one of the few left standing in Holly Beach, but the roof was damaged and they lost most of their belongings.

When Hurricane Laura made landfall on Aug. 27, it tore first through Cameron and Holly Beach — tiny coastal towns all too familiar with the decimation brought by hurricanes.

Holly Beach is an unincorporated village home to about 20 blocks of RVs and raised homes. It’s known as a “poor man’s beach town,” a joke Louisiana musician Kenny Tibs ran with in his parody of Under the Boardwalk: “I’d like to take my baby to Waikiki, but I ain't got that kind of money /so we spend a cheap Cajun weekend at a place called Holly Beach.”

They never really had boardwalks. Now about half of the houses have been washed away and all of the RVs are gone.

Winds topped 150 miles per hour when the storm made landfall. Telephone poles went through windows and palm trees snapped in half.

The town is mostly empty now. Most residents evacuated and haven’t come back. It took weeks for Entergy to restore power to the area. Water services are still spotty. Piles of debris and trash line the streets. A layer of mud, inches deep, coats the ground. It smells bad. Trailers lay on their sides with kitchenettes and living rooms spilling out.

Spencer and Carol Owens’ house survived the storm, but the roof was damaged. They’ve covered it with tarps and dragged all of their wet belongings out to the street.

Credit Ryan Kellman / NPR
Holly Beach is a small, unincorporated town about 45 miles south of Lake Charles. Many of the homes here were flattened by Hurricane Laura, which brought winds topping 150 mph.

“That’s our house across the street in bags,” Spencer Owens said, pointing to a pile of wet mattresses, pillows and black trash bags.

They rebuilt after Hurricane Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008. They plan to do it again and to stay in Holly Beach, where their community is. Neighbors go shrimping, crabbing and fishing together.

“Why wouldn’t anybody love living here?” Owens said. “It’s not always bad. There’s a lot of beauty on the Gulf Coast.”

The Owens are staying in a friend’s trailer for now, and using a generator for power, just like everyone else. They’re taking bucket baths.

“We’ve been married 52 years, we can handle it,” Owens said

Three weeks after Hurricane Laura blew through southwestern Louisiana, people there feel neglected.

Karen Hamilton, from Oak Park Church in Mobile, Alabama, drove through in a black pickup full of non-perishables like cookies, snacks and Spam, as well as essentials like diapers and toilet paper.

Volunteers like Hamilton are targeting small communities on the coast, and what she has seen has been heartbreaking: “People crying, older people with no way to wash clothes … some people only have the clothes on their backs. Some have nothing.”

She believes the small towns hit by Laura aren’t getting as much media attention or government help as Lake Charles.

A FEMA official said that disaster response and outreach has been complicated by the pandemic. Instead of going door to door, like they usually do, staff have set up emergency centers where people can apply for assistance.

The official said that all affected residents were eligible for a one-time payment of $500 and could be eligible for more, but they have to apply by Oct. 27.

But people didn’t seem to know about the assistance, in part because they haven’t had access to reliable internet or phone service for weeks.

Congressman Clay Higgins’ office said they’d received many calls from frustrated residents. Higgins gave a presentation on the House floor Tuesday night, appealing to Congress to provide more assistance.

President Donald Trump has approved Gov. John Bel Edwards’ request for a state of emergency, unlocking more federal dollars.

Research has shown that after every storm, when coastal residents are forced to calculate the cost of rebuilding with the desire to live on the coast, many choose to move away.

Just down the street from the Owens, Ray Miller also gutted his house after wind damage. He said he hadn’t seen any officials come through, and didn’t know where to turn for help.

He worked for more than 20 years for General Motors so he could buy his own little piece of Cajun Riviera and fish for redfish and trout every day.

"I have to get away from this...I'm too old."

Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO
Ray Miller's dream was to retire in Holly Beach, but now he's thinking of moving to Alabama because he's tired of rebuilding.

“It’s some of the best fishing in the world,” he said, in between taking down storm shutters on a sweltering afternoon.

He loves Holly Beach because it reminds him of home on the Maryland coast. But now, in his 70s, he’s thinking of moving to Alabama.

He said the taxes are too high, and the expenses of rebuilding storm after storm are becoming insurmountable.

“I have to get away from this,” he said. “I’m too old.”

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

For information on applying for disaster assistance call the FEMA Helpline at 800-621-3362 or visit

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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