Storm after storm has battered Louisiana, but many residents are intent on staying and rebuilding
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Drive through Lake Charles, La., and you’ll find blue tarps covering roofless houses, plywood boards over pane-less windows, and billboards with “Hurricane Claim?” in large print. They are the battle scars from Lake Charles’ year of hardships that saw two massive hurricanes hit the city in southwest Louisiana.
At local news station KPLC, digital sales manager Andy Jacobson described his experience with Hurricane Laura in August 2020, followed by Hurricane Delta in October, and then record-breaking floods the following May. Now, as the other side of Louisiana recovers from Hurricane Ida, which hit almost exactly a year after Laura, one thing is clear: The road to recovery is long and winding.
As Hurricane Laura approached on Aug. 26, 2020, Jacobson watched KPLC meteorologists monitor the forecast and reporters urge citizens to evacuate. Jacobson planned to stay with others from the KPLC team so they could provide news coverage during and after the storm. Plus, Lake Charles was home: He had lived in the city since 1968, and now it was the home of his parents, wife, kids, and grandkids. His church is there, and he had worked at KPLC for 20 years.
His wife begged him to evacuate. After her fourth phone call, Jacobson joined the rest of his family in Kingwood, Texas, about 130 miles away. Hours later, Hurricane Laura made landfall 30 miles south of Lake Charles. Around 1 a.m., the storm reached the city as a Category 4 hurricane and battered Lake Charles through the night.
Laura toppled trees, whacked windows, and maimed metal structures around the city. It was the strongest hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Camille in 1969. Meteorologists reported Laura hit wind speeds of 150 mph, but even that data is incomplete: The wind knocked out several wind recording stations and destroyed radar equipment. National Weather Service meteorologist Tim Humphrey noted this was rare, as “the instruments are designed to handle extreme weather.”
The storm damage shocked residents when they returned. “There were no street signs,” longtime resident Joshua Keith said. “The landmarks I grew up with were completely gone. You couldn’t drive at night because of the debris and power lines scattered across the road.”
After the storm, Louisiana’s August heat and humidity returned. Much of the city was without electricity for a month, which meant no air conditioning. The city also struggled with a housing shortage. Residents couldn’t move home, and volunteers who came to help couldn’t find a place to stay. “I don’t know that there was even room for hopelessness,” said Keith, who coordinated disaster relief efforts for his church. “We were just so overwhelmed.”
Bethel Presbyterian Church, assisted by Mission to North America’s disaster relief program, took part in the relief efforts to aid Lake Charles residents. Keith first determined church members’ immediate needs: tarping roofs, chopping down trees, and removing debris. Teams of volunteers also helped the members’ families, friends, and neighbors.
KPLC’s 400-foot broadcast tower crashed through the studio’s roof. Jacobson’s home withstood a “five-hour tornado.” Oak trees fell onto his storage sheds and clipped the side of the house. The wind blew off shingles.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, the Jacobsons began the slow process of filing insurance claims and searching for contractors. After living in hotel rooms for more than a month, they were eager to get home. On the morning of Oct. 9, 2020, contractors finished repairing their roof. But hours later, Hurricane Delta ripped off the new roof and flooded the house.
Back to repairs. From January to April, renovations continued. In April, eight months after vacating their home for the second time and living with Jacobson’s mother-in-law, the Jacobsons settled back into normal life.
The slightest rain forecast spooked Lake Charles residents. On May 17, rain poured for six hours straight. Jacobson was in the KPLC office watching the forecast, feeling helpless. The house flooded again.
For the third time in nine months, his family moved out, filed insurance claims, and waited: “You have to laugh to keep from crying.” Still, he credits God’s goodness in providing contractors and flood insurance.
On Aug. 7, 2021, nearly a year after evacuating for Hurricane Laura, the Jacobsons returned home.
After two major hurricanes, severe COVID-19 outbreaks, a freeze, and record-breaking floods, why stay? “My family is here. My church is here. My livelihood is here,” Jacobson said. “I’m staying.”
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