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'We also need America's help': Southwest Louisiana continues Hurricane Laura recovery

William Taylor Potter
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
Lt Doug Henderson surveys the damage at the Cameron Fire Dept. Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

LAKE CHARLES - Despite progress clearing roads and restoring access to power and water, southwest Louisiana still has a long way to go in its recovery from Hurricane Laura.

In Cameron Parish, where the Category 4 storm made landfall nearly two weeks ago, residents remain under a mandatory evacuation order as parish officials continue debris removal and rebuilding of basic infrastructure, including power and water.

The Lake Charles area continues to recover, with about half of Calcasieu Parish still without water. Mayor Nic Hunter said the search-and-rescue phase of the recovery has largely ended, and now the city is looking at long-term recovery and asking for the nation's help. 

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"This was not a knockout punch for Lake Charles," Hunter said. "I want to tell Lake Charles citizens and I want America to know that we will bounce back from this. We're going to help each other here locally...but we also need America's help. We need Americans to help a great American city here in Lake Charles."

The Louisiana National Guard continues to play a big role in helping southwest Louisiana's recovery. Lt. Col. Scott Desormeaux said Laura was the worst he's seen, calling it "worse than Rita."

While storm surge from Laura didn't appear to be as devastating as expected, other damage has taken its toll on the area, he said.

"We were very lucky that the water aspect of this was not what it was going to be, but I will tell you that the wind damage and the amount of search and rescue on that, it was impressive," Desormeaux said. "We've never seen it like that before."

Despite progress, damage remains widespread

During a tour of some of the damage in Lake Charles and the 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team's distribution site at the city's civic center, Laura's extensive damage is still clear nearly two weeks later.

Buildings across Lake Charles have large sections of their walls or roofs missing from the storm's powerful winds. Downed power lines continue to line the streets, and sounds of construction echo across the city.

Trump visit:Trump in Lake Charles vows to "take care of Louisiana" after seeing Hurricane Laura damage

Many businesses remain closed as power outages persist around Lake Charles. Residents and store owners continue to work on their houses and buildings, placing tarps, removing debris and moving forward. Food trucks and stands — often providing free food — dot the city.

Workers remove twisted steel from a communications tower that collapsed in downtown Lake Charles as Hurricane Laura made landfall. Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

Dozens of temporary housing units stand next to McNeese State University's Alumni Association building, which has been converted into a command center for the Guard's brigade. Desormeaux said the university's leadership has been instrumental in the recovery effort. He said he spoke with the university's president about setting up, and the group was moving into the building the next day.

Louisiana National Guard continues to serve area

Desormeaux said about 2,400 soldiers from his brigade are assisting with security and distributing resources across eight parishes, making up about two-thirds of the brigade's total force.

The Louisiana Army National Guard provide assistance and resources to help the Residents of Calcasieu Parish after Hurricane Laura. Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

The National Guard's role in providing security takes pressure off of local law enforcement, whose buildings may be without power and whose officers may be worrying about their own families. The transition from search and rescue took about 12 hours, Desormeaux said.

"We've gotten pretty good at hurricane response," he said.

'I knew I was going to die': Cameron shrimpers survive sinking boats during Hurricane Laura

The brigade has about 23 distribution sites spread out from Vernon Parish to Cameron Parish, Desormeaux said. The sites provide residents with water, ice, tarps and Meals Ready-to-Eat (MREs). One distribution site is set up at the Lake Charles Civic Center, which sees about 4,000 vehicles per day.

More:As Acadiana starts school, students from storm-battered Calcasieu, Cameron parishes welcome

Electricity continues to be biggest challenge in recovery

Despite the relief efforts, challenges remain. Most of the roads in the affected areas have been cleared of debris, but large swaths of southwest Louisiana remain without power and about 47% of Calcasieu Parish is still without water, Desormeaux said.

"You couldn't have driven half a mile without getting a flat tire," Desormeaux said of the Lake Charles area immediately after the storm. "Our engineer support crews were immediately on the ground clearing roads.

"Electricity is the biggest challenge for the community," he said.

Line crews from Berkeley Electric Cooperative in South Carolina work to restore power near Lake Charles, LA.  Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday afternoon that about 137,000 remain without power in the area, down from the 616,000 that were without electricity immediately following the storm.

Entergy Louisiana reported it will be mid-September before it brings the first of its seven transmission lines in Lake Charles back online.

Lake Charles has seen "pockets of electricity" begin to return, largely along the outskirts of the city, Hunter said.

"It seems like every couple of hours we get an update that a new neighborhood or a new area of town has some lights on," Hunter said. "I can't tell you how proud I am of our city employees and Entergy, our electric utility, for moving mountains to make these things happen."

The biggest challenge, the mayor said, is manpower. He said much-needed necessities like food, water and toiletries have been pouring into Lake Charles. But the city needs people that are willing to help clean debris and secure the homes of residents, particularly low- to moderate-income residents.

More:Hurricane Laura damaged a Lake Charles Confederate monument, after parish officials voted to keep it

He said there are some organizations, such as Samaritan's Purse — a religious organization that provides disaster relief — that have resources, but they need volunteers.

In Cameron Parish, recovery is slower

Cameron Parish, which took the brunt of Laura's force when it made landfall near Cameron, continued its mandatory evacuation order as the recovery continues, the Cameron Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness said in a document posted on Facebook.

The parish continues to operate eight distribution sites for meals, ice, and other supplies.

"People of Cameron Parish, please keep in mind that our Parish is still under a mandatory evacuation," a Facebook post from Cameron Parish OHSEP said. "We are allowing you to come in to assess and secure your property. Know that if you do come in, all resources are limited. Please try and keep traffic down to a minimum so that utilities, debris management and parish workers can move easily throughout our parish to restore services."

Residents, work crews and volunteers in Cameron Parish work to cleanup and repair damage caused by Hurricane Laura. Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

Desormeaux said after the National Guard brigade leaves in a few weeks for the next mission, the area will not be left without resources.

He said as other parts of the state recover, more civilian resources can be directed to southwest Louisiana. The National Guard brigade is a stop-gap measure until those resources are available, he said.

"The state leadership is 100 percent behind us, obviously, so they're going to give us all the assets and resources that we need to quickly close that gap, going from the state mission to the federal mission," Desormeaux said. "This is just what the Guard does. We execute a state mission to save our citizens' lives and property, then we'll turn right around and do our federal mission overseas. That's just who we are."