Classie Ballou lives on the fifth floor of Chateau du Lac, an eight-story retirement home in the Louisiana city of Lake Charles. “I made it through Rita,” he said from a park bench in the rubble of downtown as he reflected on the fury of Hurricane Laura that had just roared through his home town. “Honestly, I thought it wasn’t going to be that bad.”
He shook his head. “If I were doing it over, I would leave.”
At 2am, he woke up to feel the building – which provides a home for disabled residents – swaying back and forth as the category 4 storm hit. His neighbors on the eighth floor felt the roof go at about the same time. Soon, his room was full of water from the rain running through the building.
Shalonda Brouchet, who also lives in the building, didn’t trust her car to make it to Houston, so she spent the night as well. Windows began to blow out, and a set of dumpsters began to crash around in the parking lot. “The wind, it just kept coming.”
In the morning, Ballou and Brouchet walked the streets of downtown to assess the damage, and then gathered in a covered area under the building with neighbors.
“There’s devastation everywhere,” said Ballou, pointing towards the collapsed roof of a home-goods store across the street. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen, and I came up remembering Audrey,” a storm that killed 416 people in the same part of Louisiana in 1957.
Matthew Dubone, another resident, said they didn’t expect to hear from their property manager about the habitability of their apartments till Monday. “This building is out of commission,” said Brouchet. There is no electricity and no water, although the rooms are soaked.
Now, Dubone said, they survey the wreckage that was Lake Charles and wait for help to come.
The cars in the parking lot of their building are mostly ruined, smashed by pieces of the falling roof, and the Texas-bound interstate – where most residents say they would go – is blocked. They have piled frozen chicken thighs and pork chops on a picnic table, along with a bottle of lighter fluid and bag of charcoal briquettes, and are getting ready to cook the meat before it rots.
But as of early afternoon on Thursday, nobody had told them when or where aid workers might distribute food in the days ahead. On the street outside, a steady stream of trucks rolled by, which they said were focused on clearing downed trees.
“Everyone who lives here is disabled. A lot of them left or were evacuated and we was the ones who couldn’t make it,” said another resident, Kelvin Lamplin.
Louisiana is still under restrictions designed to cope with the coronavirus pandemic – such as a mask mandate – but in Lake Charles masks were nowhere to be seen on residents, rescue workers and even the soldiers on the crowded national guard convoys rolling through town. Near the town a chlorine plant erupted with thick, billowing smoke after being damaged by the storm. Authorities ordered people around the plant to stay in their homes with windows and doors shut.
Laura has headed north of the state as a tropical storm after hitting the Louisiana coast with blasts of wind up to 150mph strong. Officials warned of “catastrophic conditions” and more than 600,000 people fled its path.
But not Chrystal and Ben Johnson. They rode out the storm with their family in the historic office building they own downtown. They live 30 miles north of Lake Charles in Ragley, Louisiana, but thought that the building was safer. “This place has 2ft-thick walls, and a pump in the basement,” said Ben. “Houses roar,” said Chrystal, but this building, which was once a post office and court, stayed quiet.
Now, anticipating weeks without power, they are planning to drive back north and gather their belongings, and then leave the state. The family is receiving a steady stream of updates about relief efforts nearby. Another family member, chiming in from behind them, said the national guard had begun guarding the local CVS store, and had heard that the Cajun Navy, famous for its civilian rescue effort during Katrina, was still looking for somewhere to set up a base.
In front of one of Lake Charles’ few high-rise buildings downtown, a volunteer rescue worker who identified himself only as James described spending the night inside a jammed elevator. He said that he had been in at least 20 storms, and came to Lake Charles on Wednesday to prepare for the aftermath. A friend let him stay inside the tower, home to a Capitol One office, but in the middle of the night, he got antsy about the storm surge, and decided to take a service elevator to the 16th floor.
Halfway up, he heard a voice through the speaker that said “Elevator out of service”, and then he was stuck. He had brought meteorological equipment, and watched the pressure drop as the eye of the hurricane passed over. “The barometer dropped an inch. I’ve been in a lot of storms, and I’ve never seen that before.”
As the eyewall whipped the city, “something gave, and the whole building shredded”.
James was sure that the others who had taken cover inside the tower were gone. But in the morning, he pried open the door and then used a piece of metal to scratch his way through the sheetrock elevator shaft. From there, he had enough service to call for help, and rescue workers smashed the rest of the way through.
A few blocks from downtown, 18-year-olds Draven Smith and Aidan Abshire wound through debris-covered streets in a rattling pickup, gathering fallen traffic signs.
The pair had waited out the storm in their house just outside Lake Charles after realizing that all the gas stations were closed, and they didn’t have enough gas to evacuate. Like others, the wind, and the shaking, roaring, is what stuck with them. “Surprisingly,” said Abshire, “ours is the only house that’s OK. Roofs are ripped off, fences are all down, windows broken.”
As an army corps truck rolled by, they changed the conversation to the rumors of looting they had heard, although they hadn’t seen any themselves.
“A hurricane, when it comes through, feels like a big warning, from God,” says Abshire, “A big push that things should change. The looting, the riots. The way people are treating our Earth.”
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