S2 E1: Somewhere to Sleep
S2 E1: Somewhere to Sleep
In a span of nine months, Lake Charles, Louisiana, endured two hurricanes, an ice storm, and a flood. Each one was declared a federal disaster. The government promised help, but as time wore on, this working-class city was still a sea of blue tarps and debris. Thousands of people were left scrambling to find somewhere to live.
People like Alexis Sheridan and her fiancé JJ Jones, who lost their rental home in back-to-back hurricanes. They bounced around between living in their damaged house, hotel rooms, and a tent. And with a baby on the way, the couple was desperate to find a permanent home.
In this episode we spend time with Alexis and JJ as they wait for someone to step in and rebuild their city after a year of climate chaos.
TRANSCRIPT OF THIS EPISODE
Lauren Rosenthal: OK, so we're pulling up to America's Best Value Inn and Suites. I don't know exactly where they're going to be, but I’ll just. Oh, there they are.
The first time I met Alexis Sheridan, she was having a really bad day.
Alexis was staying at a hotel in Lake Charles, Louisiana. When I pulled up, she was outside — easy to spot. Sitting on the curb, seven months pregnant, surrounded by trash bags and duffels, with two bikes parked behind her.
Lauren Rosenthal: So what happened this morning?
Alexis Sheridan: Huh?
Lauren Rosenthal: What happened this morning?
Alexis was getting kicked out.
Alexis Sheridan: And so I had the room paid up to this morning, you know. I don't know, it’s just, it's stressful.
Alexis and her fiance, JJ Jones, lost their rental house in back-to-back hurricanes in 2020. Thousands of people in Lake Charles lost their homes. Alexis and JJ had been looking for a new place to live for almost a year, finding nothing. The hotel had eaten up their income, their COVID stimulus checks. Some charities had helped, but they were out of money too. The hotel asked them to leave.
Alexis Sheridan: So like, they let us stay over an hour, check out was at 11:00. You know, and I know this is a business, and they've been very, very nice. It was really comfortable here.
Before the hotel, Alexis and JJ had been living in a tent. In a friend’s backyard.
As we stood outside the hotel, a police cruiser pulled in.
JJ Jones: I don’t know.
Alexis Sheridan: I’m going to ask him a question.
JJ Jones: Oh, golly.
Alexis Sheridan: Sir.
Alexis raised her arm and waved at the cops, like, hey, come over here. The officer pulled up next to her.
Alexis Sheridan: Do y'all know — since the storms, we were staying in a tent in our former landlord's backyard. But I need to know, like, right now, I have nowhere to physically go. Where is it legal to go?
Officer: You’re talking about, for like, options that are housing people?
Alexis Sheridan: Yeah, the storm destroyed our home.
Officer: So a lot of — everybody was affected by the hurricanes, you know? So a lot of that has been phased out. They're not active …
There had been shelter for people like Alexis. But the government began closing those programs soon after the hurricanes. Almost a year later … and Lake Charles was still a sea of blue tarps covering busted roofs and rubble waiting to be cleared. More than half the housing in the area had been damaged. A lot of it was still unlivable.
Officer: What I'm going to do. I'm going to go maybe talk to some other people to see what kind of resources are still available. Do y'all have a working phone, does someone have a working phone?
Alexis Sheridan: No, we didn't pay it this month because we've been paying hotel rooms. I don't know. I'm just about to pull my hair out.
Officer: Well, hey, don't give up.
Alexis Sheridan: I'm not gonna give up, I know God's on our side.
Officer: Stay strong with it. There's people that are helping people and you're going to get back on your feet. So I’m going to go ask some people, see what I can find out, and if I see you around in this area …
The cop said there were people trying to help in Lake Charles. But everyone I’d talked to was still waiting on the system that was supposed to help this city recover.
(Theme music in)
It hadn’t kicked in. I was here to find out why.
This is In Deep, a podcast from American Public Media. I’m Lauren Rosenthal.
Over the next five episodes, I’m going to tell you what I found in Lake Charles, Louisiana, after a year of reporting. How repeated storms pushed people out of their homes and a lack of aid kept them from finding new ones. The most vulnerable families were hit the hardest. But middle-class people got burned too.
This is a story about one city in Louisiana. But it could have happened anywhere in the country. In fact, it will happen again, because the system that people believe is going to help them rebuild after a disaster is the same everywhere in the United States. It's a patchwork made up of insurance and the government. And neither one is ready to deal with climate change.
In Lake Charles, people had to count on each other for help. This is the story of how it turned out.
(Theme music out)
This is Episode 1: Somewhere to Sleep.
If you’re looking at a map, Lake Charles is smack between Houston and New Orleans. It has elements of both, but it really does feel like its own thing.
(Sfx fishing rod casts)
Danielle Guillory: You can try to catch you some supper, but you won’t always be successful.
It's an hour drive from the Gulf Coast. But the city is threaded through with water.
Danielle Guillory: There's water everywhere down here.
Bayous, creeks, little bridges crisscrossing them all.
Danielle Guillory: It’s a pretty view. Prettier than a lot of people get.
And, as I learned …
Lauren Rosenthal: Is L'Auberge a floating casino? Are we floating?
Even the city's casinos float on the water.
(Sfx zydeco music)
People in Lake Charles are proud of their music. And their food.
Dominique Darbonne: Do you guys like corn and potatoes?
Roishetta Sibley Ozane: Everybody is crazy about New Orleans but New Orleans does not have the best food. Southwest Louisiana. The food is better.
Dominique Sibley Ozane: A peak afternoon would be sitting around, boiling crawfish and drinking beer.
Dominique Darbonne: I squeeze, and pull.
Roishetta Sibley Ozane: But I twist and pull. Now you have to put that microphone down and try.
About 80,000 people live here. Half the residents are Black. The city is deeply segregated.
Cynthia Guillory: This whole area is predominantly Black. South Lake Charles, there are predominantly white areas. I'm trying to think of a truly integrated neighborhood. I’ll be honest, I can't think of one.
A lot of people here work in chemical plants and oil refineries.
Danielle Guillory: If you go down I-10, you'll see all the purple flames. If we'd come home at night, like that's what every kid in Lake Charles knew. You saw all the flares from the plant and you were like, yay! We almost home! That and the smell. (Oh yeah.) ’Cause there was a distinctive smell the closer you got.
But one way or another, life in Lake Charles always comes back to water.
Christian Guillory: We have the crawfish industry, fish industry, even the oil and the refineries, all this stuff still has to do with water. Our whole way of life revolves around water.
There's water everywhere, and it rains a lot so flooding happens here, and people expect it. But not like they've seen lately.
This all started in August of 2020 with a Category 4 hurricane. Hurricane Laura was one of the strongest ever to hit Louisiana. It struck Lake Charles head-on in the middle of the pandemic and a presidential election.
It’s possible you never heard about it. Or that just a couple weeks later, another hurricane hit in almost exactly the same place. And winter brought a freak ice storm to Lake Charles and to much of the Gulf south.
It was relentless. These storms all hit in the span of just six months — so close together, damaging the city more deeply each time. Lake Charles never bounced back. It became impossible to find somewhere to live. Seven percent of its population just moved away in a single year. People were expecting insurance and the government to rebuild Lake Charles, but insurance companies and the government let a lot of people down.
Like Alexis Sheridan, the woman in the hotel parking lot. I didn’t hear from her for three days. She finally texted me from a Walmart near downtown.
She was outside using the free wifi.
Alexis and JJ were the only two people sitting in front of the store, right on the concrete. They’d dropped their stuff near the metal racks where people return their shopping carts.
(Sfx shopping carts clanging)
Lauren Rosenthal: Hey Alexis. What's up?
Alexis Sheridan: Hey, y’all.
Lauren Rosenthal: Good, how are you?
Alexis Sheridan: We’re doing OK.
We took a seat.
JJ was older, in his mid-50s, to Alexis’ mid-30s, and they made a good team. I thought JJ was one of the quietest people I’d ever met. But it turned out he was just shy around my microphone.
JJ Jones: I talk to everybody.
Alexis Sheridan: He does talk to everybody.
Just not to me. JJ got up and started helping people put away their shopping carts outside the store.
Alexis Sheridan: Babe, what are you doing? Are you on the payroll, silly? He's bored, I'm sure.
Alexis and JJ both looked tired. They had new sunburns since I’d seen them at the hotel. They’d kind of been bouncing around.
Alexis Sheridan: Oh. We were at our friend's house yesterday and her neighbor brought us some gumbo out and some clothes, all kinds of stuff. It was cool. What else did she bring?
The friend didn’t have space for them at her house. It seemed like everyone Alexis knew was doubled up since the storms. And the few homeless shelters there were in Lake Charles were damaged or not taking families. That cop who said he would help Alexis and JJ — he never got back to her.
Alexis — who was pregnant — knew there was a covered area at the local pregnancy clinic. So they stayed outside there.
Alexis Sheridan: Yeah we've been on concrete for three nights like this. This is what we've been sleeping on, like this.
Alexis patted the hard ground next to her. She nodded toward their bikes. There was a crate tied to the handlebars, with a knapsack shoved inside.
Alexis Sheridan: We have three little blankets right there in my bag. So I put one on the ground, and I put one as a pillow and then we put one over us because the bugs have been tearing us up so bad. Oh my gosh. I'm surprised I'm doing as good as I am and it's probably ’cause I'm pregnant. You know, I'm trying to, like, stay less stressed and, like, just keep it in my head and not let it affect him.
They were expecting a baby boy in two months. And they were still sleeping outside. Night after night. They couldn’t do this much longer.
As we sat outside the Walmart, I asked Alexis to go back and tell me the story of what happened to her and JJ after the hurricanes. It wasn’t that different from what I’d heard from a lot of families I talked to, starting with the first storm. Hurricane Laura cut a 30-mile swath of destruction.
Alexis Sheridan: Every tree in the yard was down. Like, one of them fell on the house, one fell on the laundry room.
They got to work cleaning up and helped the landlord start repairs.
Alexis Sheridan: It was crazy.
And it was about to get crazier. Because another hurricane erupted in the Gulf of Mexico. It had only been six weeks since the first one.
Alexis’ house was unlivable. The landlord asked her and JJ to leave. They sent an application to FEMA, which you’re going to hear a lot more about later on. For now, all you need to know is that FEMA can put a band-aid on things after a big disaster, helping people repair their homes and find somewhere to stay.
FEMA sent Alexis some money to rent a new place. But there was nothing to rent. Thousands of people were in the same boat — searching for housing with nowhere to go. So Alexis and JJ took some of that FEMA money and bought a tent to set up in a friend’s backyard.
Lauren Rosenthal: When you started staying in the tent, like, what was your — your game plan like? That was obviously a temporary place to say. What were you hoping?
Alexis Sheridan: I thought that, you know, more homes would become available faster. And I didn't realize the extent of it. No one really does until you walk through and it looks like a bomb went off in the whole city, you know. And then when you actually try to find housing …
There’s not a lot there.
Alexis put in application after application for homes she lost out on. Too much demand. Not enough supply. That’s because disasters mess up rental markets in ways that often become permanent. Rents will spike 20, 30, 40 percent. And they usually don’t come back down. And that's how Alexis and JJ ended up living in a tent.
Pretty soon, they realized — they were stuck. They had no way to leave town and search for housing elsewhere. No car, no buses running to take them out of town.
Alexis Sheridan: It could be so much worse too. But this is still — kind of just still unreal.
They tried going back to FEMA for more help, but those applications were denied.
When that wild cold front sent Lake Charles into a weeklong deep freeze. A good samaritan booked them a hotel. But then, it was back to the tent.
And when the cops came and told Alexis and JJ to take the tent down, all they could think to do was book a hotel. But now, they were out of money.
The future was deeply uncertain.
Alexis: My biggest fear right now is, you know, my baby being born. I have nowhere to go. And I still have issues that I have to address too, you know, in the meantime.
Alexis had been struggling for a long time, long before the hurricanes wrecked her and JJ’s house, with some stuff that I think most people would have a really hard time talking about. But Alexis wanted to talk about it.
Alexis is from a family that’s been in Lake Charles a long time. Growing up here, Alexis always knew what she wanted to do.
Alexis Sheridan: Like, my whole life, I wanted to be a cop. I would put “a policeman” on my kindergarten paperwork, saying, “I want to be a policeman.” My mom would say, “a police woman?” And I was like, “no, a policeman.”
But that didn’t happen for Alexis. She started using drugs young and spent years in and out of jail for theft and violating her probation. By the time I met her, Alexis had already had four other kids. The state had placed them all with other families. It was for the best, Alexis said. But she was scared that if she couldn’t find a place to live, the state would take this baby. The one she had on the way.
Alexis Sheridan: That's — that's really horrible. Like, your kids (psht) whatever. You know, you have no control over it whatsoever. It's horrible.
Alexis wasn’t giving up yet. She’d turned down offers to crash with friends because a lot of them were still using drugs. She needed to stay away from that. And the state was keeping an eye on her.
Alexis Sheridan: You know, to try to make sure we have everything in line so they don't have it to take this baby and (sigh)
A case worker had told Alexis about a housing program that sounded promising. And he wanted her to apply. Before I found her at Walmart, a local aid group had also stopped by. They dropped off a new tent, and they’d promised to help Alexis plead her case with FEMA.
But it was going to be hard for them to do that. Alexis was out of phone minutes. Unless she had wi-fi, no one could get a hold of her.
Alexis Sheridan: It just now stopped — I think I turned it on an hour ago, like connected to the Wi-Fi an hour ago — and it just stopped dinging. I was like, oh, my gosh.
As she fiddled with her phone, a man walked across the parking lot toward us in gym shorts and a T-shirt. He smiled.
He reached into his pocket and he pulled out cash.
Alexis Sheridan: Oh, my God. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. That's so sweet, you know.
Lauren Rosenthal: He just gave you each 20 bucks.
Alexis Sheridan: Yeah. Don't — don't make me cry, Lauren.
There were a million things Alexis needed in that moment. Money for housing applications. For taxi rides, so she wouldn’t have to bike around town with a pregnant belly.
And then, there were the minutes she needed for her phone. She waited a beat.
Alexis Sheridan: Here, put that in your wallet.
And she handed the folded up cash to JJ.
I thought about this moment a lot afterward. Because it was part of a pattern I saw in Lake Charles. People who were still displaced by the storms and needed help were always making these tradeoffs.
For Alexis and JJ, it was a choice between a working phone or a ride today or just the possibility of getting into a home, somewhere down the line. Lots of landlords charge a fee just to apply for a house or apartment. So if Alexis and JJ wanted a shot at getting a place to live, Alexis wanted to hold onto this money … that this nice man randomly gave them.
So the cash went into JJ’s wallet.
It started getting late.
(Sfx rain and thunder)
Lauren Rosenthal: This thunder and lightning is, like, right overhead.
A heavy wall of clouds had rolled in as we talked. It looked like a thunderstorm.
(Sfx thunder clap)
Lauren Rosenthal: Whole sky is lighting up. There you go.
Alexis laughed at me. To her, it was nothing.
Alexis Sheridan: It's Louisiana weather. And like usually it'll be raining so hard you got to pull over.
JJ Jones: Right. And you’re like, where’d the rain come from?
Alexis Sheridan: And then five minutes later there’s no rain.
Five minutes went by. Then ten, then 30. It still hadn't stopped.
Alexis Sheridan: Do you want to get out of the rain?
Alexis and JJ started to look worried. They’d just gotten that new tent from some aid workers. They could use that to keep dry tonight. But they weren’t sure where they could camp with it in the city without trespassing or drawing attention from the cops again.
Alexis Sheridan: I should call the police station and say, where can I set up a tent for tonight that’s legal? You think I should? Somebody needs to know something, you know? Like, they know they have people in tents. They know they have people that are homeless from the hurricane.
She was serious. Her cell phone was still out of minutes. So she borrowed mine. And since the local cops hadn’t helped Alexis, she dialed the sheriff’s department.
Alexis Sheridan: Yes, I have a question. We've been homeless since the storm, but we've been, like, literally sleeping outside for the last three nights. Someone gave us a tent, the Vessel Project. Do you know where it would be legal to set it up? I'm, like, almost seven months pregnant and I just want to be safe and not get in trouble.
A few minutes went by. The dispatcher asked if Alexis could go to a homeless shelter, but they were all closed or not accepting families. They kept talking.
Alexis Sheridan: OK, thank you so much. What is your name?
Alexis hung up.
Alexis Sheridan: He said if I can get to a hotel, he'll pay for it.
JJ Jones: Huh?
Alexis Sheridan: The operator at the sheriff's department said, if I can get to that hotel, he'll pay for it tonight out of his pocket.
There was a chain hotel just around the corner — the place where I had met Alexis and JJ just a couple days earlier, when they ran out of money. It was raining hard by now, so JJ locked up their bikes and loaded their bags into our car.
As we pulled out, Alexis and I both noticed the streets around us were draining really slow.
Alexis Sheridan: They better have a room. Let it be my luck, for them to tell me that they don't have one.
Ever since the hurricanes, hotels had been packed in Lake Charles. Even the cheap ones ... which weren’t so cheap anymore. We pulled up to the hotel and Alexis ran inside. She was back in minutes.
(Sfx car door)
Lauren Rosenthal: What's up?
Alexis Sheridan: He said he’s not paying 115.
There were rooms available, but they were too expensive.
Alexis Sheridan: A hundred and fifteen dollars. What the hell?
The dispatcher didn’t want to pay for it. Alexis shook her head, but she bounced right back. She knew another hotel across town that was slightly cheaper. Eighty bucks a night.
Alexis Sheridan: Is that gonna like make you nervous and —
Lauren Rosenthal: What to drop you off there?
Alexis Sheridan: No, just like driving in the rain and thunder and lightning.
Lauren Rosenthal: No, that’s OK.
We agreed to head out.
(Sfx heavy rain, splashing sounds)
Lauren Rosenthal: This crazy scraping sound is standing water on the roadway. Like, spraying up against the bottom of my car in the wheel well. There's — I mean, there’s a lot.
As we drove, Alexis started to get nervous. Not about the roads, but about where they’d go if this hotel was out of space.
Alexis Sheridan: If they don't have a room, I'm going to freak out.
Alexis didn’t have a backup plan. From the backseat, I could hear JJ say that if there were no rooms available, he and Alexis would just have to stay with me and our producer Jamie. Alexis laughed.
Alexis Sheridan: They cannot take us home. They have to go by the journalist code. Don’t you have a journalist’s code?
Alexis was right. Journalists are supposed to keep some boundaries with the people they interview. And I think some of them would say I crossed those boundaries just by giving Alexis and JJ a ride and letting them use my phone. To me, that felt like the right thing to do. But my company had rules against paying for things like gifts, or even hotel rooms.
Alexis Sheridan: Yeah, you should, because you can go get your heart strung on every single person you come across. Then they will just run you ragged. You can't help everybody.
Finally, we pulled up to the second hotel of the night — the cheaper one.
(Sfx car door)
Alexis came back from the front desk at this second hotel, her hands thrown up in frustration.
Alexis Sheridan: So he has to be here. She can’t take the payment over the phone.
The clerk at the front desk said rooms had to be paid for in person. Hotel policy. Alexis borrowed my phone again and redialed the sheriff’s department.
Alexis Sheridan: She's saying that she could lose her job. Hello. Hey, is there any way that I can come meet you or you can come meet me?
The sheriff’s department was just down the road — literally a two minute drive. But as we sat there, I could hear the dispatcher through the phone.
Dispatcher (through the phone): No ma’am, no ma’am. I mean, I don’t have cash on me.
Alexis Sheridan: OK. I didn't know. OK, thank you so much.
Dispatcher (through the phone): Sorry I couldn’t help you.
He told Alexis, no. He couldn’t leave work. And he didn’t have cash for her to pick up, either.
Alexis Sheridan: All right. Bye bye.
Alexis stared out the window.
We’d talked about a lot of hard stuff that day — her life before and after the storms. But this was the first time Alexis seemed deflated.
Alexis Sheridan: It’s just crazy, And it's every day, every day. Nonstop. Like, you get a little bit of hope and bam — every time. It's aggravating. And it wouldn't even aggravate me as much if I wasn't pregnant, you know? Because my baby is going through all this with me and that sucks. Like, I'll cry a little bit, but we stay laughing most of the time, you know. It's just a shame. Like, really? You can’t take payment over the phone?
She rubbed her head. And said she needed a minute alone.
Alexis Sheridan: Thank you.
All day, I’d seen how random strangers felt pulled to help Alexis and JJ. The 40 bucks they got, from the guy outside the Walmart. The sheriff’s dispatcher, who offered to book a hotel room with his own money. Even me. Giving rides and letting Alexis and JJ use my phone, wanting to do more. But good deeds had only gotten Alexis and JJ so far. I couldn’t fix this for them.
(Sfx rain, car door opening)
When Alexis came back, she said she and JJ were prepared to sleep outside again despite the rain. They knew a parking lot at the local civic center downtown that had a big white canopy standing over it, to protect against the rain.
Alexis Sheridan: It says Homeland Security.
Lauren Rosenthal: I think they’ve been using them for COVID vaccination clinics.
Vaccine clinics, and drive-thru COVID tests. It was outside — but at least it was covered. Everything about this felt absurd, but I pulled out of the parking lot and we headed downtown.
(Sfx directions, turn signal)
As we pulled up to the civic center, we spotted the big white canopy, long enough to fit a few cars underneath it.
Alexis Sheridan: Maybe we might just lay there, with our blankets. Or we might just set our tent up under there and then pull it out, you know, to the other part.
JJ Jones: Ohhh
Lauren Rosenthal: Do you have warm clothes?
JJ Jones: No. All my clothes are over there. We have no clothes other than the clothes we got on.
(Sfx heavy rain)
It was still pouring rain. We gathered Alexis and JJ’s things and ran for cover. It was pretty dry beneath the canopy, but the wind still got in. With every gust, the plastic covering shook and snapped against the metal frame.
Alexis Sheridan: Oh, god. Watch the whole thing fly off, while we’re under here.
We could see heavy barrels and sandbags tied to the frame, holding it in place. But still ... it was eerie.
We got to work setting up this brand new tent. We slid it out of the box.
(Sfx tent poles, synthetic fabric)
Lauren Rosenthal: This is huge.
The fabric puddled on the ground. It was dark, so I used my cell phone as a flashlight. JJ moved fast, locking the tent poles into place.
The rest of us fumbled, trying to hook the poles to the fabric.
Lauren Rosenthal: Ohhh, I see. There are tabs.
Alexis Sheridan: Where's the zipper?
Once the tent was standing, Alexis crawled inside and spread out a few blankets. She waved to JJ to stop fussing with the poles. He stepped back and took it in.
JJ Jones: Home away from home (laughs).
Alexis cracked a little smile. We said goodbye — but it was hard to leave.
Lauren Rosenthal: All right, we'll talk to you again soon.
JJ Jones: Alright, thank y’all for everything.
Jamie Hobbs: Thank you guys!
Our producer Jamie and I ran back to our car.
As journalists, this was what we were supposed to do. But as a person, I did not want Alexis and JJ to stay out there.
Lauren Rosenthal: It feels wrong to leave them there. I’m not sure what else we’re supposed to do.
Sitting there in the rental car, I had to make a choice. I still don’t know if it was right. But I pulled out of that parking lot.
(Sfx turn signal)
As we drove away, we could barely make out Alexis and JJ’s tent under the big white canopy in the rain.
Alexis raised so many questions for me about what was going on here. Why had FEMA stopped helping Alexis and JJ? Was there another agency that could? Alexis didn’t have insurance when the storms hit. Would things have been different for her if she did — or if she’d owned her house instead of renting it?
Eventually, I’d find answers to all those questions. And I’m going to tell you about them.
Next time on In Deep, someone steps up to help people like Alexis. Not the government. Not a charity.
Dominique Darbonne: So we paid for a couple of hotels out of pocket and then we like, shoot …
Dominique Darbonne: This is not …
Roishetta Sibley Ozane: Sustainable.
Dominique Darbonne: Sustainable. What are we going to do?
In Deep is reported and produced by me, Lauren Rosenthal, with help from Jamie Hobbs, Anna Canny and Nancy Rosenbaum.
Our editors are Chris Julin and Dave Mann. Thanks to Catherine Winter, Caitlin Esch, Bridget Bodnar, Curtis Gilbert, Sasha Aslanian, Kori Suzuki, Renata Sago, Annie Baxter and Chris Worthington. Original music by Jelani Bauman. Betsy Towner Levine. This episode was mixed by Derek Ramirez. Our web editor is Andy Kruse. You can find more information, pictures and links to all our episodes at indeep.org.
Photo of tarp-covered roofs in Lake Charles: Ben Depp for American Public Media.