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Hurricane Laura leaves a long road to recovery

Some Louisiana residents face weeks of uncertainty during a pandemic

Hurricane Laura leaves a long road to recovery

Mary Sensat (Photo by Hannah Henderson)

Mary Sensat is quick to admit her mistakes. Seated in a plastic patio chair with her knock-off Crocs barely touching the ground, the 80-year-old said she knew she’d made a big one about 2 a.m. Thursday.  That’s when Hurricane Laura roared over a closed portion of I-10 within sight of Sensat’s Lake Charles, La., home, rattling rafters, snapping trees, and landing her porch swing against a fence 20 yards away. 

“The lights went out, and it was like we were in a barrel, being turned around and around,” she recalled.  “I’ll never stay through something like that again.” 

Officials blame conducive conditions in the Gulf of Mexico—warm waters minus wind shear—for powering Laura to Category 4 as it reached the Louisiana beach town of Cameron, a hurricane hot spot previously decimated by Audrey, Rita, and Ike. After landfall, Laura’s eye moved north toward Lake Charles, bringing with it heavy rains and a storm surge that elevated water levels throughout the area. 

That’s when Sensat hunkered down in her living room. It’s also when equipment at Lake Charles Regional Airport clocked Laura’s highest wind speed. Kurt Van Speybroeck, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) Southern Region, confirmed a peak of 133 miles per hour. He says automated systems were vital after employees of the city’s NWS branch evacuated, leaving the Brownsville, Texas, office to issue warnings.

Photo by Hannah Henderson

Damage on Hodges Street in downtown Lake Charles, La. (Photo by Hannah Henderson)

Phone alerts became important for Lake Charles residents like Justin Schroder, who sheltered downtown in facilities belonging to First Baptist Church. “This is a big place, and we knew we could move to the second or third floor if the storm surge was bad,” the McNeese State University adviser explained. 

But it was wind, not water, that wreaked havoc there in the dark. A crowd of some 20 church members huddled inside while winds crumbled stone above the sanctuary’s entrance and splintered a multi-story expanse of stained-glass windows. Schroeder said the group did a lot of praying during those hours, and one family piled into a small bathroom and sang hymns: “We became a team. Some were good at technology, so they figured out how to turn off the alarms that kept sounding. We took care of the different generations. We shared our food.”

Outside the church, other teams formed, but the partial closure of main artery I-10 forced convoys of out-of-state utility trucks—tree removal, electric power, home storm repair—to detour north through damaged sugar cane fields and small towns where missing roofs caused insulation to drift like snow. By afternoon, portions of the interstate reopened, with strewn tin and bare billboards welcoming motorists to Lake Charles’ seven exits.

One of those exits leads to Broad Street, where downed power lines and poles blocked three lanes of traffic. A red Corvette sat atop a lift in the exposed rubble of an auto repair shop bay. In Orange Grove Cemetery, live oak branches cluttered above-ground tombs. Business owners at Lake Charles Instruments Inc., a company that specializes in liquid measurement for refinery customers, boarded broken windows. “We haven’t eaten all day,” a woman with red cheeks and a hammer said over her shoulder.  

Photo by Hannah Henderson

A damaged Comfort Suites in Lake Charles, La. (Photo by Hannah Henderson)

Samaritan’s Purse is staging its relief efforts in Lake Charles, and after a quick drive-through late Thursday, Manager Todd Taylor said the work will be intense: “These homes are severely damaged. Roofs missing. Shingles gone, left and right. The water systems are down, and it’s going to be weeks before some people get electric power.” 

Many churches are damaged as well, and Taylor added that while Samaritan’s Purse can truck in the necessary tarps, wheelbarrows, and chainsaws, there’s a new requirement in the mix. Volunteers must come with a negative COVID-19 test that’s no more than 72 hours old. He asked for prayers: “People are already stressed by the pandemic, and this is beyond the straw that broke the camel's back.”

The pandemic dimension also concerns Christy Papania-Jones. As director of the St. Nicholas Center for Children in Lake Charles, she’s wondering what impact Laura may have on learning conditions. The students her center serves have autism or other developmental delays, and their recent 10-week quarantine closure meant they got telehealth rather than the in-person intensive therapy they needed. “It’s very difficult to get a child with autism to sit through a therapy session with a remote instructor,” she explained. “The timing of this devastation is really hard, knowing they might regress even more.” 

But Papania-Jones pointed out that Laura’s predecessor, Hurricane Rita, brought some good to Louisiana along with the destruction. When her family evacuated to Destin, Fla., in 2005, a therapy center for children with autism welcomed Papania-Jones’ recently diagnosed son and showed her the ropes. Papania-Jones wanted to bring something similar to her hometown, and that led to the opening of St. Nicholas. 

In her wake, Laura left at least 16 dead and more than 700,000 businesses and homes in three states without power, including the damaged one on Pineview Street in Lake Charles that belongs to Mary Sensat. She said she hopes the Salvation Army will soon bring meals, because “she hears they’re good.” As four police cars circled through, she contemplated aloud fallen ceiling tiles and a commode she can’t flush. Then, fingering a necklace that belonged to her sister, Sensat admitted evacuating relatives offered to take her with them, but they wouldn’t take her son. He has bipolar disorder.

“God helped us. He blessed us, but next time we’ll hitch a ride somewhere. It was that scary. You don’t know what it is until you go through it.”

Kim Henderson

Kim Henderson

Kim is a World Journalism Institute graduate and senior correspondent for WORLD. During her career as a homeschool mom, she worked as a freelance writer. Kim resides in Mississippi with her family. Follow her on Twitter @kimhenderson319.