As the U.S. eyes Hurricane Sally, Lake Charles, Louisiana, is still recovering from Laura

The city is still under a boil-water advisory, most schools are closed, tens of thousands have no power, and some residents are under curfew.
Image: Hurricane Laura aftermath Lake Charles, Louisiana
The aftermath of Hurricane Laura in Lake Charles, La., on Aug. 30.Dave Creaney / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file
By Ben Kesslen

As Hurricane Sally heads for the coast of the Gulf of Mexico this week, Lake Charles, Louisiana, is still reeling from the damage Hurricane Laura wrought in August.

Laura, a Category 4 storm, devastated large swaths of Lake Charles, killing at least 28 people and bringing severe flooding to the city of 80,000. At its peak, the storm knocked out power for around 615,000 customers in Louisiana. Gov. John Bel Edwards said the hurricane was the most powerful the state has ever seen, worse than Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

A tree knocked over by Hurricane Laura blocks a residential street in Lake Charles, La., on Aug. 30.Drone Base / Reuters file

Laura brought 150 mph winds and a storm surge up to 15 feet; 580,000 people were forced to evacuate. It hit southwest Louisiana, where Lake Charles sits inCalcasieu Parish, the hardest, and 44,000 customers remain without power almost three weeks after the storm made landfall.

For the residents whose homes were destroyed, it is unclear when — or whether — they will be able to return home. And those who fled east to New Orleans faced an impossible choice over the weekend: go back to Lake Charles to flee New Orleans as Sally approached or ride out the storm.

"My god, my heart just goes out to them," Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter, a Republican, said of residents forced to once again escape a hurricane. Although Sally's path shifted in the ensuing days, it now appears on track to largely spare New Orleans, and the struggle of those residents whose homes were destroyed remains acute.

The city is indefinitely under a boil-water advisory as its water and wastewater plants remain without power, Calcasieu Parish schools are closed and are not offering remote learning, Cameron Parish is under curfew, and residents who wish to return without their homes secured have been told that they must be "self-sufficient" — which means they must be able to live without electricity, and tosecure the gas needed for generators if they own them, as well as have sufficient supplies of bottled water.

Eight people perished from heat-related illnesses when the city was plagued by a heat wave in Laura's aftermath; nine more died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator, NBC affiliate KPLC of Lake Charles reported.

Around the city, along with power lines that are dangling, traffic lights are not working, many streetlights are without power, and a burn ban is in place, KPLC reported. Traffic jams are hampering recovery efforts.

Hunter called the storm "a tragedy and catastrophe the likes of which we have not seen in a lifetime."

Entergy, the power company in the area, announced Monday that the "majority" of storm-affected southwest Louisiana customers will have power restored by Sept. 23. The company said it expects "to restore power to the remaining customers who can safely receive it by Sept. 30." But others cannot safely get their power back: A spokesperson for the company said in an email that there is "currently an unknown number of homes and businesses that have major damage, precluding them from receiving power until they are repaired or rebuilt."

Hunter said: "When I saw the devastation, I thought it would be months before we had electricity. Our utility has been able to do some amazing things ... but the job is not complete."

Hunter said one of the many things his office is focused on is a long-term housing plan for residents whose homes were destroyed.

"A lot of people are without a home right now," the mayor said. "We are getting to a moment in time where FEMA is going to have to come out with a housing plan. I am not going to throw stones at any agency until I have to — I want us to be a team, and I believe we are that right now — but we are quickly approaching a moment where FEMA is going to have to come up with a concise and well-executed plan."

The housing plan will be the Federal Emergency Management Agency's "test" for the city, Hunter said. FEMA did not immediately return a request for comment about the timeline of its plan.

In the housing recovery plan, Hunter would like his city's residents to have choice and not be forced into a one-size-fits-all plan.

Tens of thousands of people in Southwest Louisiana still do not have power.Dave Creaney / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file

"When people are able to, I want them to be able to come home," he said. "We need something that is sustainable and that families can have some pride in."

Schools are another challenge. The Calcasieu Parish School Board closed all sites and facilities after Laura. Its website said 97 percent of the schools suffered "substantial damage." And as residents in the region remain without power, remote learning is neither easy nor an answer.

All of this, of course, is happening during a pandemic.

"You can only ask so much of human beings," Hunter said of the twin challenges his city's residents are facing. The mayor said the storm's damage has necessarily taken priority. Calcasieu Parish has recorded more than 7,600 cases and 200 deaths from the coronavirus.

Hunter said he was grateful when President Donald Trump visited in late August and believes his congressional delegation and the governor are fighting for the city "tooth and nail."

"We cannot have Americans — and we cannot have Washington, D.C. — forget about us," he said.