Snapped Poles, Shredded Roofs: A Long Road to Recovery After Laura

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WESTLAKE, La. — In a neighborhood along the Calcasieu River, Hurricane Laura transformed the roads into a perilous labyrinth of snapped utility poles, tangles of wires and uprooted trees. In one spot, a broken pine was suspended over the asphalt by a single strained utility line. Yet a parade of vehicles still passed beneath: People desperately wanted to get home.

In past storms, Patricia Broussard had been one of the lucky ones, spared from significant damage. But this time, the hurricane ripped through the mobile home where she lives with her grandson, just as it did to most of her neighbors’ homes. She had covered the enormous holes in the side of the house and was wielding a large lopper to cut off damaged siding.

“This trailer probably isn’t going to be good anymore,” said Ms. Broussard, 62, her face reddened by the blistering heat. “But I’m doing what I can with it.”

She had already been forced to leave her job at a convenience store in March, because of the coronavirus and a list of health issues that made her especially vulnerable. And now, a long year had just gotten longer.

In the working-class neighborhoods in and around Lake Charles, La., how difficult the path ahead would be was becoming clear. And on Sunday, Louisiana was staring down the toil of rebuilding both their homes and their broader community.

The damage the storm inflicted was so severe that it will be an immense undertaking just to clear debris. But beyond the physical labor, residents were also stepping into the thicket of bureaucracy that follows a hurricane, with insurance claims and applications for government aid. Federal emergency officials said that on Sunday alone, inspectors surveyed more than 200 damaged homes and issued more than $650,000 in assistance.

“We have a long road ahead of us,” Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana said in a briefing on Sunday.

Officials said that roughly 368,000 customers in the state remained without electricity. Some 17,000 linemen were at work on repairs, but they had a lot to tackle: some 500 transmission towers were destroyed or damaged. In some places, utility companies said, it could be at least four weeks before electricity is restored.

“This is the No. 1 priority for most people who want to resume some normalcy in their life,” Mr. Edwards said.

When Laura was roaring toward the Louisiana coast last week, officials offered grave warnings of a storm surge that meteorologists said would be “unsurvivable.” But the storm failed to deliver catastrophe on quite that scale.

Even so, Laura was the most powerful storm on record to hit Louisiana, swamping Cameron Parish on the coast and moving north with devastating winds, which were measured gusting up to 140 miles an hour near Lake Charles. At least 16 deaths have been attributed to the storm.

CoreLogic, a data analytics firm in Irvine, Calif., estimated that the hurricane had caused insured losses of $8 billion to $12 billion. “The story here is going to be the wind damage,” said Curtis McDonald, a meteorologist with the firm. Of the total estimated damage, the firm said, just $500 million was probably attributable to the storm surge.

Much of the devastation has been concentrated in and around Lake Charles, a city of 78,000 heavily dependent on the oil and gas industry.

Rows of small businesses downtown were ransacked by the wind and rain. Windows of the tallest building in the city were blown out. Throughout the city, modest houses had shingles and siding shorn off, and trees that had stood for decades came crashing through roofs or spilled into impassable streets.

The destruction was especially brutal in Westlake, across the Calcasieu River from Lake Charles, with just shy of 5,000 residents and a skyline formed by the galvanized towers and flares of an oil refinery. The storm caused a fire on Thursday at a Biolab chemical plant in Westlake, prompting Governor Edwards to warn residents to “close your windows and doors and turn off your air conditioning units.”

Some residents acknowledged concerns over the community’s industrial surroundings and their unwelcome consequences. But those facilities also offered stable, decent-paying jobs, a kind of promise that might be tough to find in other places.

“You’re not going to get rich, but you can work an honest job, support your family, find a church community,” said Angela Handy, a nurse and lifelong resident of Lake Charles.

Still, a certain exasperation has taken hold, as powerful and destructive cyclones like Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Hurricane Rita in 2005 have hit the region with alarming frequency. Imelda last year was only a tropical storm, yet it led to major flooding.

“You hear it all over,” said Carl R. Griffith, the former county judge in Jefferson County, Texas, who oversaw the local response to Hurricane Rita and who served on a Louisiana commission for rebuilding after that storm. “It’s people are just frustrated, and trying to do everything they can to protect their property, their lives and their families. But their jobs are here. It’s a great place to live.”

The region also remains in the grip of the coronavirus, with officials cautioning that the virus could become more of a threat as residents’ attention shifts to recovery work. Calcasieu Parish, which includes Lake Charles, has had 7,439 confirmed cases of the virus and 182 deaths, according to a New York Times database. As of Sunday afternoon, Louisiana as a whole has reported 148,030 cases and 4,931 deaths.

Ms. Handy sat on her front porch on a recent afternoon with her sister and their mother, who until the hurricane went by Willie Laura Williams. Now she’s begun editing out her middle name.

“She’s disavowed it,” Ms. Handy’s sister, Leah Reed, said.

Snapped limbs covered their lawn. Shingles had been shaved off the roof. The power was out and there was nowhere to go; local hotels had no room or were without electricity.

Ms. Reed had taken a drive around to survey the damage, checking on the homes of relatives and friends who had evacuated before the storm. She was disappointed to see that a buffet restaurant that opened this year was damaged. “We’ve been waiting for Golden Corral for forever and a day,” she said.

As much as she was awed by the destruction she saw on her tour, she was also heartened by the evidence of resilience in her community and a spirit of connection binding it. When her car got stuck in mud, two men walked over and pushed her free. When she approached a fallen limb in the road, strangers lifted it up for her to pass.

Mary Williams Walsh contributed reporting.

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