'The real damage is people's spirits': Lake Charles sees 12.5 inches of rain, more expected

Leigh Guidry
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

LAKE CHARLES — Still recovering from a disastrous 2020 hurricane season, Lake Charles saw 12.5 inches of rain and flooded roads and homes Monday, with several more days of rain forecast to come.

Tim Robles watched the rain pour down Monday through the windows of his home in a Lake Charles neighborhood near McNeese State University's football stadium. His house was OK, an island in his neighborhood.

Two of his kids, 10 and 4, were sheltering in place at schools not far away, but water over roads made the distance seem greater.

“One was at school across the street, but it feels like an ocean apart," the 43-year-old said. 

One day after flash flooding in Lake Charles, LA, residents begin the hard work of cleaning up. Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

When it was time to pick up 4-year-old Darcy, Robles waded through water to reach the school. Others kayaked to schools to pick up kids and get them to their families. 

“I had to park my truck and wade in to get my 4-year-old,” he said. “I wrapped her in my rain jacket and put her on my shoulders.”

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His neighborhood and surrounding area reportedly received 15 inches of rain Monday.

“We have drainage problems, yeah," he said, "but I don’t know what community could take 15 inches of rain in the span we got and not flood.”

Second largest one-day rainfall total

Monday's total is the second largest one-day rainfall total for Lake Charles in 70 years, according to a Daily Advertiser analysis of data from the National Climatic Data Center, which is run by NOAA. 

Only one storm, 41 years ago on May 16, 1980, saw more rain fall in a single day when Lake Charles was pummeled with 15.7 inches of rain.

More:See flooded cars, buildings in Lake Charles after the city experiences third wettest day ever

Robles is a business owner and a pastor at Sale Street Baptist Church, and the number of calls and texts he has been receiving shows the depth of his connections in the community.

He and others deployed boats and kayaks, tapping into part of his business Lake Area Adventures, to help stranded people get to dry ground. He continued to ride around the neighborhood and call others Tuesday to check in on how they’re doing and what they might need, even as rain continued to fall.

Ronda Quayhagen and Russ Southerland waded through water to recue ther dogs after  flash flooding in Lake Charles, LA,  Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

He’s worried about morale, as his neighbors and congregation have been through hurricanes, a winter storm and of course the pandemic.

“People look for damage, but the real damage is people’s spirits,” Robles said. “Like everyone else, we were not really prepared. We thought it was just a normal Monday. When you see it (rain) just building and building, your heart just kinda starts sinking.”

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While his house made it through, he feels the weight of those who aren’t even back in their homes after Hurricane Laura last August.

“We don’t just live in our house; we live in our community,” Robles said. “Until we’re all back in our houses, none of us are home.”

Evacuations and assistance

The torrential rain flooded streets and homes. The Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal tweeted Monday evening that it had deployed nine boats to the Lake Charles area to assist the local fire department with flood response. Within an hour they had answered nearly 30 rescues/requests to evacuate.

Russ Sutherland and Ronda Quayhagen stood outside their home on Sunset Drive in Lake Charles Tuesday beside their belongings that had been in bedrooms flooded by Monday’s rain.

They had parked their vehicle at McNeese State University Monday night and got in a stranger’s boat that took them to their street. Then they waded in.

They found a lot of spiders along with water inside their home, grabbed their three dogs and a cow trough to carry them out and back to their car. The two humans returned Tuesday to clear out rooms and clean or rip out flooring.

One day after flash flooding in Lake Charles, LA, Paul Lungaro helps a friend clean debris from flood waters. . Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

The couple said they’re fortunate, as the highest house on the street and with a place to go in the meantime. They know so many who still aren’t back in their homes after the fall hurricanes.

“I don’t even know where Lake Charles goes from here,” Sutherland said. “I really don’t. That’s scary.”

“We were just here,” he added. “I hope this is not a warmup for hurricane season.”

Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter said in a Facebook post that the city was working with local, state and federal agencies to recover. 

"Everyone out there is tired," he wrote. "Some are now facing the unthinkable prospect of repairing a home for the third time in less than a year."

"I wish I had a quick, easy fix, but there is no magic wand that can solve this issue," he added. "We are experiencing 'Hundred Year Events' more often and with more ferocity than in the past."

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) said in a statement his office was working with White House officials to help get federal aid to south Louisiana following the weather event. 

"The drastic rainfall of the last 24 hours has been catastrophic in Lake Charles, which was hit by two hurricanes less than a year ago, and in Baton Rouge where over 15,000 homes and businesses are out of power," he said in a statement. "With rain expected for the next few days, please stay alert, listen to local leaders and create a plan to protect yourself and your family."

'It's just overwhelming'

Bernadette and Julius Courville left their home Monday and couldn’t get back to it until Tuesday due to water.

“It just rose so quickly yesterday,” Bernadette said. “We had to leave.”

They returned to find it flooded, and friends and family members joined them in ripping up carpet and moving belongings outside under the carport.

“It’s just overwhelming,” Bernadette said tearfully between cleaning and answering phone calls from her insurance company.

Their home had never flooded, not even during a big flood in the 1980s. Then the water just reached the back door, they said.

'We gotta get them ready'

The floor of McNeese State baseball team’s equipment room was still soaking wet Tuesday afternoon, and so was everything in it.

The team, which missed out on having a season last year due to the pandemic, is set to leave Wednesday morning to play in Conway, Arkansas, so Coach Justin Hill, his wife Melissa and team manager Austin Corley dragged bags of sopping wet jerseys and pants to a nearby laundromat to get them clean before game time.

They washed six different blue and gold jerseys — 45 each — and hundreds of pairs of pants, Melissa Hill said.

McNeese State Cowboys baseball  Head Coach Justin Hill standing in the teams clubhouse after flash flooding damaged the teams clubhouse which has not been repaired after damage from Hurricane Laura. Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

“We gotta get them ready,” she said. “They need uniforms.”

They washed, dried and folded them together at Laundry World, owned by their friend Paul Pettefer. Corley, a Lake Charles native, said this was a first for him in four years with the team.

“Natural disasters tend to make you do firsts,” Melissa Hill said.

The part of the baseball equipment building that houses coaches’ offices, a conference room and locker rooms already was off-limits due to damage from Hurricane Delta in October. Coach Justin Hill hadn’t been using his office because of that, but everything still in there was now wet.

“It’s not just one thing,” Hill said. “It’s residual. We keep getting, keep getting.”

His home also is still awaiting repairs after the fall hurricanes, a situation shared by many in the area. They also share a general sense of not getting the help or response they need, he said.

“Our biggest concern is for the community folks still here,” Hill said. “I think they’re tired — or not tired, but frustrated. It’s probably going to take a federal response.”

Reporters Ashley White, Andrew Capps and Taylor Potter contributed to this article.