LAKE CHARLES, La. – Heading into the Christmas holiday, people in Lake Charles are still recovering from not one, but two major storms: Hurricane Laura devastated the area in August and just six weeks later Hurricane Delta followed suit.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), more than 1,000 people are in hotel rooms because of Hurricane Laura. FEMA estimates it will be “early summer 2021” before everyone in need gets direct housing.
As of Dec. 15, 853 temporary housing structures have been sent for residents. The deadline for housing referrals is Dec. 31.
As for those still awaiting housing from FEMA or other sources, some are now living in tents; that list includes Katelyn Smith and her family.
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The family of nine rode out the Category 4 storm in a home next to their trailer.
“I was crying from all the loud banging happening outside,” Smith said. “I told my dad ‘I am scared, and he said ‘you and the boy go in the bathroom with your brother’ and about 10 minutes later, the add-on to the house flew away.”
When it was finally safe to go outside, the family had nothing to go home to.
“We think our trailer flipped like three times because we had a tree that was in front of it and it ended up going through that and onto the roof,” Smith said.
The mobile home is now a pile of debris on the side of the road, forcing the family into tents.
“We don’t really have a lot of family and we don’t really know anybody, so our only option really was tents,” Smith said.
Smith stayed in a tent for about two months before moving into a donated trailer, the rest of her family is still in tents where their mobile home used to be.
“It sucks, it doesn’t feel good at all,” Smith said. “It will probably be like this until FEMA can help out.”
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She feels like, “Lake Charles has been forgotten.”
“People like us are still out here going through this situation. I think Lake Charles has been forgotten,” Smith said. “It has only been a little while and it’s going to be a long time before we are back.”
Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter said with debris cleanup halfway done, housing is a No. 1 priority.
“We believe, if you want to look at it as a percentage, about 5% of our housing stock was brought offline and is still offline,” Hunter said. “That is about 1,000 structures, some of which were multi-family homes.”
Hunter said anyone living in tents can reach out to his office for help.
“We have come across local people and the vast majority of the time, if they contact our office, we will get them help,” Hunter said. “If there is a citizen in this city who feels like their only option is to live in a tent, they need to reach out to the mayor’s office.”
Meanwhile, the city also is working to finish cleaning up debris left behind by the storms. As of now, an estimated 3.4 million cubic yards of debris has been picked up. That is enough to cover 531 football fields.
“Our debris contractors who are some of the biggest in the country have told us they have not seen this amount of debris since Hurricane Katrina,” Hunter said.
Hunter said the latest estimate shows more than 5 million cubic yards of debris will be picked up once the cleanup efforts are done.
As of now, infrastructure — like water and electricity — is back online for the city.
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Hunter is calling on FEMA for help getting citizens into homes, and in the meantime, he is asking “Americans to help Americans.”
“We have had angels, literal angels come in to help us, but we still need a federal response,” Hunter said. “Americans shoe up to help Americans and I am asking Americans not to forget about Lake Charles.”
And the devastation is leaving little room for hope over the holidays.
“We are not having a Christmas this year, because you can’t have a Christmas without a home,” Smith said.
But, with spirits down, the Cajun Navy is working to spread some holiday cheer. The group of volunteers started a Cajun Tree, which is an Angel Tree with a Louisiana flair.
“We just wanted to make sure that no kid went without a toy, that every kid got something,” Sandra Polanco, the Cajun Navy’s director of operations, said. “People uploaded the names of children and people were able to go on the app to adopt a child.”
More than 400 children were added to the list of those needing gifts this holiday season. Over half of the kids were claimed and people are now sending wrapped gifts from across the country.
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As hundreds of requests poured in, one specifically shined a light on the true need of Lake Charles this holiday season.
“One girl, where it said ‘what toy do you want,’ put a home,” Polanco said. “It is sad because you know that means they are in a shelter or may not have somewhere to sleep.”
The children that weren’t claimed will still get a gift from the Cajun Navy on Dec. 18 during a drive-thru event.
The Cajun Navy has set up a headquarters in Lake Charles since Hurricane Laura made landfall, and is echoing calls for help for the residents of Lake Charles.
“There are still people we are finding in tents, under a bridge or in their truck,” Polanco said. “People here are still hurting and there are people that just don’t know if they will have food tomorrow.”
Hunter did not have an estimate for when the city will be completely recovered from the historic hurricane season, but said it is well ahead of schedule.
“The earliest estimates for what we had experienced with the loss of infrastructure was pretty grim,” Hunter said. “But I think we can acknowledge that while we have a long road ahead of us and we are still in the thick of this fight, we have come a long way and we have a lot of victories.”
Hurricane Laura left more than 30 people dead, half of which were due to carbon monoxide poisoning from the unsafe operation of generators following the Category 4 storm. Meanwhile, four people died in Hurricane Delta, a Category 2 storm.
FEMA has given nearly $300 million to survivors of Hurricane Laura and Hurricane Delta.