NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - More than a week after Category 4 Hurricane Laura ripped through the southwestern corner of Louisiana, state officials report more than 230,000 residents remain without power Friday. Another 175,000 are without water.
“People around the country don’t realize how bad it is here,” Michelle Lee of Lake Charles, Louisiana, told VOA. “Entergy says we won’t have power for four or five weeks. Some people say they don’t think it’ll be until November.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday that power has been restored for nearly 400,000 people, but that the remaining outages would likely be the hardest ones to fix. The reason for this, he said, was that thousands of miles of electrical wires, thousands of utility poles and many hundreds of transmission towers were damaged by the storm.
Lake Charles officials said this is a main reason residents have been unable to return to the city of 80,000, which was hit early August 27 with winds of more than 240 kph — the most powerful hurricane to reach Louisiana since 1856.
“Why come back right now if you don’t have to?” Lee said. “I have friends who are in hotel rooms in New Orleans and Texas, and why not? A hot shower is a lot better than what we’ve got here. There are people in Lake Charles living in homes with a tree through the roof and with no water or power. I know people who are sleeping in cots on their porch or in tents in their backyard.”
Edwards estimated that more than 11,000 people are being sheltered by the state, some in large emergency shelters, but the majority in hotel rooms in cities around Louisiana.
Lee said she tried to find a place for herself and her two dogs but didn’t have any luck.
“At first I was told I could find a place to stay in Baton Rouge, so I drove there, but then they said, ‘No, go to Metairie.’ So I drove to Metairie and they said, ‘No, go to Alexandria.’ It was a mess,” Lee said.
The lucky one
After driving more than 800 miles during the evacuation, Lee was afraid her old car might die, stranding her and her dogs. She was also worried about missing work at an auto repair shop if she couldn't return to Lake Charles.
“I don’t have a lot of great options,” she said. “I didn’t want to go into one of the big shelters, because I didn’t think it was safe with COVID. Even if I managed to find an open hotel room, as far as I can tell, the emergency vouchers are gone, and that would be a lot of money for me to pay out of pocket.”
She decided to try her luck back home.
Just three days after the hurricane, Lee and her dogs returned to the RV park they’d lived in since Lee’s daughter left for college. (Lee playfully calls it “the cheap life.”) She was horrified by what she saw.
“When I left before the storm on Wednesday, there were 20 RVs in the lot,” she said. “When I got back, there were only two that were livable. The rest were tipped over on their sides, or had been split completely in half. It looks like a war zone.”
Fortunately for Lee, one of the RVs still habitable was her own. She is now living in her wind-damaged motorhome with her two dogs, as well as a couple and their dog whose RV was destroyed. Lee doesn’t have running water, and the only electricity they have is when they run the generator, which Lee says is getting expensive.
“It’s another $150 a week to run the generator, the RV is kind of crowded and I’d really like a warm shower, but I still think I’m one of the lucky ones,” she said. “At least I’m home and I can go to work.”
Far from home
Olivia Dean also evacuated the day before the storm. She and the nearly 15 family members and friends she’s traveling with, including her grandparents and several uncles, have yet to make it home, though.
She said they have been unable to get an emergency voucher to cover their housing costs. This has forced them to move from one hotel to another across Texas as they search for more affordable options.
“I can’t believe how much these hotels are costing us,” Dean said. “But, stuck between a pandemic and a disaster, we don’t really have a better option.”
Dean said the group is eager to return home so they can go to work and check on their property. They are finding it difficult, however, to get information that would tell them if it’s safe to return.
“I was able to find one stranger on Facebook to go by the property and take a picture so we knew what the damage was like,” she said, referring to the social media groups that pop up in the wake of disasters to help get information and assistance to victims.
She said she knows her building lacks water, either because it has been turned off or it is contaminated. She also doubts her apartment building has power because no one in that area has electricity unless they use a generator.
“One of the buildings looks like the roof and side were torn off, but ours looks like it might be OK. We can’t really tell,” Dean said.
For natural disaster victims like Dean and Lee, the lack of information causes the most frustration, they said.
“The governor said the disaster wasn’t as bad as expected, but that’s tough to hear when you know so many people who have lost everything,” Dean said. “Nobody wants to hear how bad it isn’t right now. It’s bad enough.”
Lee agreed, adding she worries that statements like that from local officials will lead to less urgency for the rest of the country to help rebuild the region.
“We might not be as well-known as New Orleans or New York or Miami, but we have 78,000 people here and most don’t have power,” Lee said. “I’m worried people will hear what the governor says and think maybe we don’t need the help. But, trust me, we do.”
In a press conference Thursday, Gov. Edwards acknowledged the progress that has been made clearing debris, but noted that the storm “left a long trail of devastation and just catastrophic damage.”
“We clearly have a very, very long way to go,” he said, adding that “this is very much going to be a marathon, not a sprint.”
For residents like Lee and Dean, the marathon has just begun.
“It’s going to be weeks until I see any sort of assistance from FEMA,” Lee said. “An inspector hasn’t even made it to our RV park, so my application is still pending. I’m just hanging on the best I can until I get some help — that’s all I can do.”