Amid National Crises, Louisiana Mayor Fears His Decimated City Will Be Forgotten

Sep 1, 2020
Originally published on September 2, 2020 5:20 am

In front of City Hall, a crew shovels through debris, clearing a path to the front door. Bricks and broken glass from office buildings litter downtown. Gas station awnings have been flipped on their sides.

The best news in Lake Charles, La., in recent days: an announcement that 95% of the streets here are just now navigable, nearly a week after Hurricane Laura tore through the region.

"We absolutely need our American brothers and sisters to realize that a great American city had a major blow," Mayor Nic Hunter says. "I am begging, I am pleading for Americans not to forget about Lake Charles."

At the beginning of hurricane season, and in the middle of an election year, a global coronavirus pandemic, protests over police violence, and raging wildfires, Hunter fears his decimated city of 80,000 will be left to recover on its own with the nation already overwhelmed.

It could cost as much as $12 billion to repair damage from the storm in Louisiana, and the local utility company says tens of thousands of people will be without electricity for weeks – the city hums with the sound of generators, a crucial lifeline in the blazing summer heat.

Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter visits a neighborhood damaged by Hurricane Laura. Tens of thousands of people will be without electricity for weeks, according to the local utility company.
Kirk Siegler / NPR

Hunter stayed home as Hurricane Laura, the most powerful storm to hit Louisiana since 1856, spun through the town with its 150-mph winds. Now he spends his days driving around his damaged city, checking in with residents such as Winston Andrews, who also didn't evacuate.

"This is bad, terrible right here. Anyone that left don't want to see what's going on right now," Andrews says. "Lake Charles will never be the same again."

He tells the mayor his neighbors say that evacuating now could make things worse – fears of coronavirus surges meant officials have limited the number of shelters available so people are driving hundreds of miles in hopes of finding a rare open hotel room.

"They get to New Orleans, they got nothing for them," Andrews says. The mayor shakes his head. With so many people in need, all he can really do is make sure Andrews has a generator (he does) and that it's working safely. At least half of the 19 deaths from the storm are believed to be from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Hunter steps over a tangle of downed power lines to check on Andrews' neighbor in this underserved neighborhood north of Interstate 10.

"There's going to be a lot of people without insurance in these areas, and that's where we're hoping a lot of the nonprofits and FEMA will come through," Hunter says. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more than 50,000 claims have already been filed in the region, but this is just one of many expensive disasters straining federal coffers.

Qwentin Smith and grandmother Gwendolyn Smith stand in front of their home in Lake Charles. Two trees crushed the back of the house when Laura ripped through southwest Louisiana.
Ian Stewart / NPR

Down the street, Gwendolyn Smith is headed out to try and find a tarp to fix the holes in her roof. With many buildings in the city damaged, plastic sheeting is scarce. Two big trees fell over onto the house she lives in with her 15-year-old grandson, Qwentin Smith. They're hoping her landlord who lives in California will fix the damage soon.

"When it rains, it just pours down like a faucet," Gwendolyn Smith says. Her car has a faulty transmission, so they stayed put during the storm. Now, Smith, who is a security guard at a city park, is struggling to afford gas for a generator. She's spent $110 in just the past three days.

The house has no power and just a trickle of water in the kitchen and bathroom. Smith says she tried to register with FEMA, but without an Internet connection she is unable to finish her application for aid.

"They ain't doing nothing to help us," Qwentin says. His ninth-grade classes were canceled ahead of the storm. Now he is helping neighbors clean up debris. "We're just surviving."

The Smiths are desperate for information — about when the power might come back on, when they'll be able to return to work and school, and where they can shelter in the meantime.

"The best we can do is get on top of the car or on top of the house to get service at night, when it's not that hot," Qwentin says.

It's risky with the roof, but every night he climbs up, holds his cell phone to the sky and tries to get some word about what might be next for his family, and for Lake Charles.

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To Louisiana now, where it could be three more weeks at least before tens of thousands of people in the path of Hurricane Laura get their power back. In hard-hit Lake Charles, the mayor is begging, pleading for Americans not to forget about the devastation in his city, especially with so many other competing national crises. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In Lake Charles, broken glass from office buildings is all over the streets. A man is shoveling it away in front of City Hall. Driving around, there are downed power lines. Mangled traffic lights are dangling precariously in intersections. This city will take any good news it can, says Mayor Nic Hunter, even an announcement that 95% of the streets here are now at least navigable.

NIC HUNTER: Yeah, I have a million things going on right now. But one of the top priorities for me and members of public works is we're driving the streets. And when we see people, we're stopping. We're talking to them. We're giving people options if they want to get out of Lake Charles.

SIEGLER: Hunter stayed behind in his home as Hurricane Laura and its 150-mile-an-hour winds hit, the most powerful storm to strike Louisiana since 1856.

HUNTER: Look, guys; we're just checking up on you all.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you, appreciate it.

HUNTER: Are you all going to be staying here?

SIEGLER: In a neighborhood just north of Interstate 10, the mayor meets with Winston Andrews, who also didn't evacuate. And he's hearing that leaving now could make things worse.

WINSTON ANDREWS: They get to New Orleans, they have nothing for them.

HUNTER: I know.

SIEGLER: Mayor Hunter shakes his head. There are far fewer shelters too due to concerns about the coronavirus.

HUNTER: Do you all have a generator? What are you all doing?

ANDREWS: I have a generator.

HUNTER: And you all be careful with that generator, OK?

ANDREWS: Yeah, I've got it going outside.

HUNTER: I know. You know, we had some deaths.

SIEGLER: Five deaths from the storm in Lake Charles are because of carbon monoxide poisoning and using generators indoors.

HUNTER: There's going to be a lot of people without insurance in these areas. And we, you know - that's where we're hoping a lot of the nonprofits and FEMA will come through.

SIEGLER: FEMA says more than 50,000 claims have been filed in the hurricane zone so far. This is just one of many huge disasters straining federal coffers right now. But Hunter is more worried about broader society getting fatigued - wildfires in the West and across the country, the coronavirus pandemic and racial justice protests.

HUNTER: It is a big fear that America will forget what's happening right here and what we're going to be going through for the next weeks and months.

SIEGLER: The amount of need here is overwhelming, especially for renters like Gwendolyn Smith. She's hoping her landlord, who lives in California, will fix the roof, which collapsed when a tree fell on it.

GWENDOLYN SMITH: Yes, water comes in when it rains. Well, my brother put a tin up there, but I'm going to go and try to find a tarp for it to put up there to stop that rain because when it rains, it just pours down like a faucet.

SIEGLER: Tarps are still hard to come by six days after the hurricane. She and her 15-year-old grandson Qwentin didn't think their car and its bad transmission could make the long drive to evacuate. Her job as a security guard is on hold, and it's expensive to keep the generator running.

SMITH: And it's about to run out, you know what I mean? Yes.

QWENTIN: We done spent over at least $200 over gas.

SMITH: About $110 on just gas in the last few days.

SIEGLER: They've registered with FEMA, but who knows when real help is coming?

SMITH: Ain't nobody coming to help. Ain't nothing.

SIEGLER: So every night, Qwentin has to climb up somewhere just to get one or two bars on his cellphone.

QWENTIN: Best we can do is get on top of a car, top of somebody's - top of the house and get service. But that's at night when it's not that hot.

SIEGLER: It's risky with the roof caved in, but that's the only way he can get news to see if there are free hotels they could evacuate to.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Lake Charles, La.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAREN O & DANGER MOUSE SONG, "LUX PRIMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.