S2 E5: Moving On
S2 E5: Moving On
Lake Charles didn’t finish cleaning up debris from one disastrous storm before the next one hit. It started one morning, near the end of our time in Lake Charles, with a steady rain. As we drove around town, the rain fell harder, and we noticed the river, which we’d driven across many times during our stay, suddenly looked much higher. Then our phones buzzed with storm warnings.
In this season’s final episode, we witness the full force of severe weather in Lake Charles. We also learn how residents have started to move on, and how their experience may preview what many other communities will have to endure.
TRANSCRIPT OF THIS EPISODE
Lauren Rosenthal: So it is early Monday morning. May 17th.
One morning, toward the end of our time in Lake Charles, our producer Jamie and I got up early. And hit the road.
Lauren Rosenthal: This is the day that the city of Lake Charles is going to start its final round of debris pickup from the hurricanes.
They’d hit more than six months earlier. But Lake Charles had never finished cleaning up before the next storm hit, and then the next. This morning, the city was sending out an army of garbage trucks to make one final sweep.
Lauren Rosenthal: And so they've asked everybody to bring their stuff to the curb. And over the last couple of days, like throughout the weekend, I started to notice bigger piles of stuff accumulating by the roadside. Trees, insulation, siding, roofing materials, twisted metal, unidentifiable parts of buildings, just kinda piled up.
That’s what you’d see if a house was finally getting repaired, we’d learned. But if the curbs were clear in front of a house that still looked damaged, it could be a sign. The owners were struggling to get started.
We wanted to see where work was and wasn’t happening. It was gray and humid when we left our place. But by mid-morning, it started to drizzle.
Jamie and I had seen our share of rain storms in Lake Charles. We’d been in town for almost a month. But then, my cell phone buzzed with this weird pattern. It was an emergency alert.
Lauren Rosenthal: What? A tornado warning for Lake Charles, Louisiana.
I was surprised. Because a warning is National Weather Service-speak for, “you are in danger.” Yeah, it was rainy, but out of nowhere, a tornado was forming over Lake Charles.
Lauren Rosenthal: Tornado warning in this area until 10:15. If you’re outdoors or in a vehicle, move to the closest substantial shelter and protect yourself from flying debris. So I'm going to say, let's turn around and let’s go inside.
(SFX heavy rain)
The only building we could think of that had a basement, even remotely close by, and was open to the public was the civic center.
Jamie turned the car around and we approached a bridge that we’d driven over a million times since we’d been in town. Jamie pointed over the steering wheel.
Jamie Hobbs: Oh, that river suddenly looks way higher than it has.
Lauren Rosenthal: Yeah, the water is way higher than it was just when we crossed over it this morning, a couple of hours ago. And it hasn't rained that much.
As we drove through the city, the wind picked up. And the rain began to fall heavier and heavier. We noticed some of the piles of trash we’d passed stacked up on the curbs that morning were gone. The wind and rain were washing them straight into the sewers.
Lauren Rosenthal: I can see that there is debris, and there are sticks, and there are two-by-fours shoved into some of the storm drains here. So stuff has definitely been running in that is clogging up the drainage system.
The streets around us began to fill with water. Traffic slowed to a crawl. I leaned over and squinted down the block ahead of us.
Lauren Rosenthal: Whoa, there is a car that's stuck, like all the way in the middle of the street. It's like a little sedan and the water is up over the driver's door.
But we couldn’t see anyone inside. We turned onto a main drag that was still passable. And Jamie got us to the civic center. We parked and we ran for it.
(SFX heavy rain)
This is In Deep, a podcast from American Public Media. I’m Lauren Rosenthal.
I went to Lake Charles because I wanted to figure out why the city wasn’t getting help after back-to-back hurricanes and a historic deep freeze — all federally declared disasters. I wanted to know how people were rebuilding and recovering on their own.
When I came to town with our producer Jamie, it wasn’t hurricane season. People weren’t ready for severe weather. But on May 17, 2021, it happened again.
This is the final episode of In Deep. Episode 5: Moving On.
Once we got inside the civic center, Jamie took out her phone. She pulled up a live stream from a local TV station that was tracking the tornado.
(SFX news livestream)
Jamie Hobbs: So the rotation has moved away from downtown and it’s heading toward Goosport.
Lauren Rosenthal: Which is right where we just were. That’s literally where we drove down here from.
Jamie Hobbs: And so just to be clear, it sounds like there's no — nothing that has touched down, but there's just some rotation that they've detected. And that's why there's a warning.
(On the livestream) Jacob Durham, KPLC meteorologist: …right now, still very broad. That's at least some good news and hopefully that remains the case.
I felt my phone buzz in my pocket again. I had a missed call from Danielle Guillory, the homeowner we’d met who’d been fighting her insurance company.
Danielle Guillory: Hello?
Lauren Rosenthal: Hey, Danielle.
Danielle Guillory: Are y’all surviving the great flood of 2021?
Danielle told me she’d never seen her street flooded before. But she texted me a picture while we talked. The water was up to her mailbox. She and her husband Al had run from the camper they’d been living in, parked in their yard, and they were taking shelter in their damaged house.
Danielle Guillory: This is like, unreal for us because everybody's like, we're tired of Lake Charles. There's like a little meme going around. ‘OK. Two hurricanes. Ice storm. Now this. If God don't want anybody in Lake Charles, He needs to just tell us and tell us now.’
It was frustrating. Because things had been going well for Danielle’s family. They’d been getting more money from their insurance company. Their house was finally getting fixed. And while it was elevated enough to avoid taking on water, Danielle could see on Facebook — other people weren’t so lucky.
Danielle Guillory: Because I'm pretty sure this will be the next federally-declared disaster because people are having their homes flooded. [loud thunder clap]
Danielle Guillory: Oh, my Jesus.
Lauren Rosenthal: What was that?
Danielle Guillory: Lightning. Well, power's out.
Lauren Rosenthal: Did it just go out?
Danielle Guillory: Yep. Wonderful. Probably with that last clap of lightning.
Lauren Rosenthal: Yeah. Jamie is predicting that ours will go soon, too. [thunder clap]
Danielle told us to get off the phone.
Danielle Guillory: So save your battery because you might be stuck there for some time. Alright, well y’all be safe.
Lauren Rosenthal: All right. You take care. Talk to you soon.
Danielle Guillory: OK, bye.
We waited until the tornado warning cleared. Then we stepped back outside.
(SFX heavy rain)
Lauren Rosenthal: We're standing here underneath the awning at the civic center, we're looking out toward the lake, Lake Charles, and we can see maybe like 100 feet into the lake and that's it.
The rain was falling so hard, in wind-blown sheets. Everything beyond the lakefront disappeared into this whitish gray haze.
Lauren Rosenthal: Usually, you can see clear across to the other shore, where there are petrochemical plants. You can see the I-10 bridge, the 210 bridge. Nothing.
When the rain died down enough for us to be able to see, we got in the back in the car and started driving through the city.
(SFX heavy rain in the car)
We got a text from the landlord where we’d been staying.
Lauren Rosenthal: ‘Not sure how bad the damage got there, but we are completely flooded and my car is underwater. Hope y’all are safe.’
The rain just wouldn’t stop. And there was nowhere for it to go. Lake Charles’ drainage system was backing up onto city roads, and into people’s homes, and even into some people’s FEMA trailers.
The flooding was worse in low-lying neighborhoods. But streets that had rarely or never flooded before were suddenly taking on water.
A lot of drivers were caught off guard. Some got stuck, to the point they needed to be rescued.
(SFX phone ringing)
At one point, Jamie and I had to call for help.
Jamie Hobbs: Hi, um.
Not for us, but for someone else. A home health aide we knew named Carol Rudd got trapped in her car coming home from work. Cell service was in and out, but she managed to send us a text. We had her location and a description of the car.
Jamie Hobbs: She’s in the City Trends parking lot off Highway 14.
The dispatcher said there was nothing they could do.
Jamie Hobbs: Can you — what did you say?
911 dispatcher: I said the entire city is flooded right now, so we're trying to get the calls.
Jamie Hobbs: OK.
911 dispatcher: But we can't, we can't get there.
Jamie Hobbs: OK.
911 dispatcher: OK. Thank you.
[Phone hanging up, phone beeping]
Lauren Rosenthal: Oh, she hung up on you.
The woman we were calling about, Carol Rudd, managed to get out on her own.
Even though the system was overwhelmed, the sheriff’s department managed to rescue about 600 people, using boats and high-water vehicles.
A lot of the people who were rescued got dropped off at an emergency shelter at a local church. When Jamie and I stopped over there, we found dozens of people sitting shell shocked on cots and folding chairs. One woman, Natasha Calomb, told us she’d had a very close call.
Natasha Calomb: I was in the car for an hour and 45 minutes before I got saved. I had to climb out my sunroof. I'm glad I had a sunroof.
The people we talked to were shocked by which parts of town were flooding. Rose Latigue said she never expected to see high water in her neighborhood.
Rose Latigue: And it started hailing. I started praying, it stopped hailing. But I didn’t think about praying for the water. Normally, when it says floods, we usually don’t flood in that area. But this was really surprising.
There were a lot of people who’d still been trying to get back on their feet from the hurricanes. The flood destroyed what they had left.
Driving around the city, we spotted an older guy — trim, in his early 60s — walking the perimeter of a small brick house, with a tattered blue tarp on the roof. This was the owner, Eli Reynolds.
Lauren Rosenthal: So can you just describe what we’re looking at, where we’re measuring the water line?
Eli Reynolds: OK, I don't have my tape with me, but I guarantee you, that’s — I would say better than two foot.
Eli was wearing heavy boots, jeans and a fluorescent yellow T-shirt. He told me was a forklift operator for a big company in Lake Charles. He only worked there part time.
Eli Reynolds: I mean, I'm semi-retired, but we definitely need health care at our age. And we're not old enough to get Social Security or whatever. That means I still got to do what I got to do.
Things had been tough for Eli and his wife. They’d been fighting their insurance company over damages from the hurricanes. Their house was still gutted. The roof hadn’t even been fixed.
In the meantime, everything Eli and his wife owned had been locked in a storage pod here in the driveway. Furniture, photo albums.
(SFX storage pod doors open)
He peered inside. The sofa was sitting in a puddle of murky brown water. The boxes were soaked and soggy.
Eli Reynolds: We're going to have to throw it all away. Everything is going to have to go.
Eli turned back to me. He didn’t seem angry.
Eli Reynolds: When you do this too many times, you just get tired. You get tired. And like I said, this is the third time that we've got to do it again.
They’d had to regroup after one hurricane. And then another. They’d had almost nothing left to lose. Now that was gone, too.
Eli Reynolds: We're tired. I'm 61, my wife is a little older than me. So, you know, man, we just can't do what we used to do. That's the sickening part about this. This was our forever home, where we were going to be. You know? Well. I don't know. I don't know.
The day after the storm, the numbers rolled in. More than a foot of rain had fallen on Lake Charles in a single day. It was the third-highest daily rainfall in the city’s history.
We’ll be right back.
I wondered if it was a fluke. A historic flood, a freak ice storm, and two hurricanes. All in less than a year.
Once we returned home, I started making calls to scientists and climate researchers — anyone I could think of who could help me make sense of what I’d just seen in Lake Charles. One researcher told me it could be a preview of what’s to come.
Gabriel Vecchi: It doesn't take a lot of imagination to understand that the challenges that we are seeing today are the very types of events that we expect to become more intense and more frequent in the future.
Gabriel Vecchi is a professor of geosciences and a climate researcher at Princeton. He told me climate change will cause more intense weather disasters to strike more frequently than we’re used to seeing now.
I asked about Lake Charles specifically — why one place was hit by so many storms, so close together. He told me it might take a while for scientists to piece together exactly how it all went down.
Gabriel Vecchi: Whether or not there is consensus that this type of event, or series of events, was made more likely or not by global warming — we know it happened. We know it can happen. The plans should reflect that, sort of, these multiple events could happen.
I talked with Gabriel Vecchi for a long time, because I had all these big-picture questions, about how we survive in a world where it’s possible for threats to pile up like they did in Lake Charles. He told me the solutions are still a work in progress. And they’ll vary depending on where you live.
Gabriel Vecchi: I would hope that at this stage, we really carefully consider all the options openly including those options that make us uncomfortable. Such as relocation.
Everyone I’d talked to in Lake Charles had asked themselves a version of this question. After everything that’s happened, should I try to stay here? Or should I leave?
It turned out that wasn’t just a personal choice. It was also a matter of public policy. After four devastating storms in Lake Charles, the government finally took the plunge.
Cynthia Arsenault, KPLC: Demolishing flood-prone homes isn't out of the ordinary for some parts of the country, but it would be something new for the city of Lake Charles.
The state announced a voluntary buyout program. They started offering people money to abandon their homes. And move somewhere else.
The program targeted a part of town that flooded during the May storm. It also flooded during the hurricanes, and it was probably going to flood again.
The goal was to tear down homes in that area, so the land could be restored to marsh. Marshlands can soak up water and help protect against future flooding. And with fewer homes in the way, there’d also be less damage from the next major storm or flood.
This was a formal government program whose purpose was to get people to leave their homes. But that had been happening informally for months.
Hundreds of families had already left Lake Charles, long before there was a buyout program. Seven percent of the local population had moved away in a single year. And that was just after the hurricanes.
People felt intense pressure to leave. Like Alexis Sheridan.
Alexis Sheridan: I think they expect you to relocate, you know. And I feel like not everybody can relocate.
When I’d met Alexis, she was pregnant, bouncing between hotels and sleeping outside. All she’d wanted was a permanent place to live in the city where she’d spent most of her life. Alexis had gone to FEMA, but they said they couldn’t help her.
She kept searching for housing in Lake Charles on her own, right up until her son was born in the summer of 2021.
Lauren Rosenthal: Why were you still fighting so hard to stay in Lake Charles?
Alexis Sheridan: Because I was born and raised there. I just wanted to stay with what I knew.
Alexis Sheridan: You know, I wanted to stay where I was and where I knew.
When the baby was just a few days old, Alexis got a lead on an affordable apartment. It was in a totally different city, an hour from Lake Charles. But Alexis couldn’t hold out any longer. Her son needed a home.
She took the apartment. Alexis and her fiance are now raising their son, together, in their new city. They have no plans to return to Lake Charles.
That might not sound like a big deal. But the researchers that I talked to for this story — they disagree. It is a big deal to be uprooted.
Breaking communities apart piecemeal, just letting people scatter to the winds — that makes a place less resilient and less likely to withstand and recover from the next major storm or fire.
Some of the most valuable things a community has when something like that happens are the ties between people who live there. The friends and neighbors and total strangers who are willing to make sacrifices for each other.
The systems we expect to help us through — insurance, the government — are unreliable. And often insufficient. If you happen to live in a poorer neighborhood. If you are not white, and you belong to or live in a historically marginalized community, your odds of getting help are worse.
The systems failed a lot of people in Lake Charles. Unless something changes, they’re almost guaranteed to fail again, somewhere else.
While I’ve been reporting this story about Lake Charles, other places have experienced their own versions of it.
Hurricane Ida struck New Orleans in 2021, and barreled north, flooding New York City with its remnants. California burned multiple times. And Kentucky was hit by tornadoes and floods.
As we were releasing the first few episodes of this podcast, South Florida experienced mind-boggling damage and fatalities from Hurricane Ian.
What I know for sure is that people who’ve also lost their homes are going to have to jump into action, to take care of neighbors who are even worse off than them.
People can help each other with basic needs, like a meal or a place to sleep. But on their own, they won’t be able to rebuild a city. That takes more than neighbors can give each other. It requires resources we might not have right now and big ideas that are still to come.
The same way that neighbors have to jump in to help each other, we’re all going to have to figure this out. Because if it’s not your town this time, it could be soon. There’s no use pretending that we’re not in this together.
(Theme music in)
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, Kori Suzuki, Renata Sago, Annie Baxter and Chris Worthington. And a special thanks to Lauren Humpert. Original music by Jelani Bauman. Fact checking by 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.
AP photo of parents picking up children at school in boats by Rick Hickman, May 17, 2021.