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Like Nothing They’ve Seen: Historically Strong Hurricane Laura Rips Through Southwestern Louisiana

Bill Feig/AP Photo/POOL
Hurricane Laura damage Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, in Lake Charles, La.

In the small town of Bell City — about 23 miles from both the small city of Lake Charles to the west and the ragged bottom edge of Louisiana to the south — trees were down everywhere on the morning of Aug. 27.

At one crossroad, a travel trailer was tipped onto its side and busted open. Shingles blown off roofs littered the ground and wires from telephone poles were lying in the streets. Even some of the biggest trees around were perfectly toppled, roots and all.

And just about wherever one of those trees was in the way, there was a Bell City resident with a chainsaw to get it out of the way.

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Among the chainsaw-wielding volunteers was Dylan Guidry, who lives about 20 miles east in the somewhat larger small town of Lake Arthur and was there with his brother.

“This morning the Bell City residents, they all got together, got their chainsaws and, the trees that were down in the middle of the road, they cut them up and moved them out of the way so people had a path to get through the roads, get where they needed to go to help family and residents,” he said.

“The community helped itself, helped each other.”

Credit Travis Lux / WWNO
Dylan Guidry of Lake Arthur, La., helps clear trees from the roads in Bell City, La., after Hurricane Laura. Aug. 27, 2020.

Louisianans are accustomed to this — mostly. They’re well-acquainted with hurricanes and mutual aid is a standard response. Helping each other out in times of crisis is so ingrained in the culture as to be formalized, most famously in the form of the Common Ground Collective and the Cajun Navy, both formed on the fly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

What they’re less acquainted with is the power they felt and saw in Hurricane Laura. The Category 4 storm is the strongest Louisiana has experienced since 1856, according to Philip Klotzbach a meteorologist at Colorado State University who specializes in Atlantic basin seasonal hurricane forecasts. Ranked by wind-speed, Laura’s 150 mph winds at landfall put it in a tie for fifth-strongest hurricane to make landfall in the continental United States since 1851.

“I’ve been living here for a long time,” Guidry said, drawing out the “o.”

“I’ve never ever in my life witnessed anything like that before. This was a first. Especially during a Category 4 hurricane. And to be honest, I don’t think I ever want to do it again. Especially nothing that strong. Never again. We stayed up all night, watched the news, sat on the porch, watched out for tornadoes. The wind was whipping, glass breaking, roofs ripping apart all around us. It was bad.”

Dana Lavergne spent the night at her son’s house in Bell City. She’s been staying with her other son in Hayes, the small town next door to the east, but left the trailer there for the more sturdy house in Bell City.

“I’ve lived in this area my whole life but I don’t ever remember anything as intense as that,” she said. “The wind was crazy. I’ve never experienced anything so powerful, you know?”

Asked to describe the night spent waiting out the storm, Lavergne said, “Terrible. Really, it was horrible. Really, really horrible.”

Credit Travis Lux / WWNO
Dana Lavergne sits outside her son's home in Bell City, La., after Hurricane Laura. Aug. 27, 2020.

She and her family also joined the cleanup effort, cutting up trees and clearing them off the road. All of her son’s oak trees were damaged.

“We’re just lucky that the house stayed. It was picking the roof completely up,” she said. “Just this damage? We consider ourselves lucky.”

Storm surge, power outages, a chemical fire and, still, COVID-19

In Lake Charles, which was directly in Laura’s crosshairs, and nearby towns, storm surge was measured between 9 and 12 feet. That’s much less than the expected 20 feet, but well over a person’s head and just about ceiling-height for an average home.

But perhaps the most visible damage in the aftermath was the fire, an enormous plume of black smoke in the sky. BioLab Inc. in Westlake, just across the lake from Lake Charles, was burning and as of Thursday evening still is. Officials believe the plant, which makes chlorine for swimming pools, caught fire sometime during the storm.

Credit Bill Feig/AP Photo/POOL
Hurricane Laura damage Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, in Holly Beach, La.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) learned of the fire around 9 a.m., not long before the Cajun Navy posted a video of the smoke on its Facebook page.

LDEQ responded to fire along with the Louisiana State Police, the Lake Charles Fire Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and KIK Custom Products, the company that owns the plant. Company officials said the facility had been evacuated and all employees were safe.

Air quality monitoring found no chlorine in the air, but monitoring is ongoing.

"What they have found is no low-level detection of chlorine off-site, which meant where people walk and where people gather, which is a good thing," State Fire Marshall Butch Browning said. "The cloud, the plume, as it goes in the air and moves out there is chlorine in that obviously, but that those chemicals are falling in the lake, which is the right place for it because it dilutes the chlorine so that the offside impact, we don't believe, is endangering anyone. But the standard procedure was the immediate shelter-in-place, and that was the action the state took."

As of 5:30 p.m. Thursday, there were six hurricane-related deaths reported. Four of them, including a 14-year-old girl in Leesville, a 60-year-old man in Acadia Parish and two others in Jackson and Vernon parishes, died when trees fell on their homes, according to Gov. John Bel Edwards. A 24-year old man died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator in his home, and a man of unknown age drowned when a boat he was on sank during the storm.

Credit Bill Feig/AP Photo/POOL
Hurricane Laura damage Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, in Lake Charles, La.

At least 600,000 electricity service locations around Louisiana were without power, Gov. Edwards said in an afternoon press conference, and about 2,100 people in shelters across Louisiana. About 1,900 of those people are in hotels or motels furnished by the state. The rest are in congregate shelters with social distancing measures in place to guard against the spread of the coronavirus.

More than 5,000 National Guard members were distributing emergency supplies, assisting in COVID-19 testing, and conducting search-and-rescue operations with assistance from 170 agents from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries

“It’s clear that we did not sustain and suffer the absolute catastrophic damage that we thought was likely based on the forecast we had last night, but we have sustained a tremendous amount of damage,” Edwards said at a Thursday afternoon press briefing. “So, today is about saving lives, moving people out of their homes if their homes are no longer habitable.”

“This is very much a marathon, not a sprint,” Edwards added. “It is quite often the case that it is the cleanup that causes people to seriously injure themselves… or to be killed in an accident.”

"Just waiting for the daylight"

It’s a long, laborious road to recovery for everyone in the area, even those who feel relatively lucky.

In Lake Arthur, about 45 miles southeast of Lake Charles, Chrystal Breaux and her kids were walking around on Thursday afternoon picking up shingles that had blown off their roof and onto their lawn.

“We were spared in comparison to some of our neighbors. I think that we are blessed to still have a home, unlike some,” she said. “[There’s] quite a bit of debris, shingles, roof damage, things like that.”

Credit Bill Feig/AP Photo/POOL
Hurricane Laura damage and flooding Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, in Cameron, La.

Breaux and her family have friends in nearby Cameron, Grand Lake and Lake Charles, and her sister lives in Moss Bluff.

“They don’t have homes and they don’t have jobs, because they’re places of occupation are completely gone,” she said.

Her family’s home, still standing, has a generator — they’re “familiar with storms and electricity outages and things like that.” But the night Hurricane Laura made landfall is one they’re unlikely to forget.

“My kids slept,” Breaux said, “but my husband and I were up the majority of the night, just waiting for the daylight.”

Ashley Dean is the digital news editor for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was the editor of Denverite, a digital news startup now under the Colorado Public Radio umbrella. Prior to that she was a copy editor and features writer at the Denver Post, and before that, a music reporter for the Colorado Daily. She graduated from Columbia University with a master's degree in journalism and from Northeastern University with a bachelor's degree in journalism.
As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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