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 getting it out of the way.
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.”
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.”
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 into 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.
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. 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.
At least 600,000 service locations around Louisiana were without power, Gov. John Bel 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.”
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.”