LAKE CHARLES, La. — That first drive through Lake Charles after Hurricane Laura had been a gut punch. Trinette Thomas felt a barrage of surprise and despair as she strained to absorb the destruction surrounding her and imagine the lengths it would take to stagger back. Then, another storm hit.
The shock subsided quickly, replaced by the tedium and exasperation that accompany the slog toward recovery. She is haggling with her insurance company, which reimbursed her for 14 of the 26 days her family stayed in a hotel. She is replacing the car tire that was sliced by metal debris on the road. And she is doing some rough math: Neither insurance money nor federal aid is enough to keep Ms. Thomas, 56, from having to dip into retirement accounts to pay for home repairs. Her plan to retire at 59½, as refinery workers often do, has been torn up along with her roof and the trees in her yard.
“We’re not getting the help that we need,” Ms. Thomas said of her hometown, and she is worried that the help will not come. “I want to say we’re tough, but I don’t know right now.”
Lake Charles, a working-class city of roughly 78,000 people, has been eviscerated by a direct assault from this season’s hurricanes — Laura, one of the most powerful storms to hit Louisiana, followed six weeks later by Delta. Thousands of residents remain displaced. But as many see it, the city was also the victim of an extraordinary year of misfortune, one that has subjected the nation to a carousel of calamity — record storm and wildfire seasons on top of a pandemic. The dire needs of Lake Charles have been all but erased.
The mayor, Nic Hunter, has struggled to shine a spotlight on his city, appearing on CNN, Fox News and NPR, where he told listeners, “I am begging, I am pleading for Americans not to forget about Lake Charles.”
Charitable organizations said that donations have been a small fraction of what they took in after Hurricane Rita hit the region in 2005, and that they have not been able to attract enough volunteers to clear the mountains of debris crowding streets and to clean the muck out of homes flooded by Delta.
“Our story has just gotten very quickly put aside, and I really think the devastation is so huge we should remain on the front page,” said Denise Durel, the president and chief executive of the United Way of Southwest Louisiana. “The magnitude of our destruction is so huge we cannot come back as a community on our own. We cannot restore our homes on our own. We need the help of the American public, if we can get it.”
The circumstances have prodded a tender nerve for this part of the Gulf Coast, which has long harbored a sensitivity about being overlooked as a workaday stretch identifiable to outsiders by oil refineries, casinos and the interstate connecting Houston and New Orleans.
The region has been haunted by memories of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Rita but also an uncomfortable notion that its hardship was overshadowed by the death and destruction generated by Hurricane Katrina, the monster storm that hit Louisiana weeks earlier.
But that sense of being ignored had taken hold even before then. Some trace it as far back as the Louisiana Purchase, when the would-be state was incorporated into the United States except for the parcel including Lake Charles that was officially declared a “no man’s land,” drawing renegades and escaped slaves who sought a place where their captors were unlikely to chase them. “It’s always been a land of refugees and outcasts,” said Adley Cormier, a longtime resident who wrote a book called “Lost Lake Charles.”
It is a legacy that has forged a level of self-reliance, an attitude that those who were clever enough or willing to invest the sweat equity were capable of unlocking the city’s promise. But the undertow of that history has been a fear that help may not come when needed — a fear that has been realized for some as they watch their city claw its way back.
And as an onslaught of disaster, social unrest and campaign developments dominate the news, residents have been left to wonder if that torrent of headlines has eclipsed their misfortune and stymied efforts to help. “I can’t say if it’s got something to do with it,” said Gary Hanney, a 56-year-old construction worker. “I can’t say if the president has something to do with it. I just know it’s not there.”
Hurricane Laura made landfall on Aug. 27 in Cameron Parish, south of Lake Charles, as a Category 4 storm with 150-mile-per-hour winds. More than two dozen people died in its aftermath. Trees were shredded and houses cracked open like eggs. Entire blocks of homes sustained so much damage they will almost certainly have to be razed.
Then, this month, Hurricane Delta hit the coast not even 20 miles from where Laura made landfall, unleashing floods that besieged neighborhoods and heavy rainfall that swamped homes with already damaged roofs. It was virtually impossible to discern where the destruction from one storm ended and that of the other began.
Many residents’ homes were uninsured, and some said they had deductibles over $20,000, a sum so unaffordable their insurance policies were rendered useless.
“I want people to know that we’re not OK, we’re not back to normal,” said Mr. Hunter, who has been mayor since 2017. “We’re going to do our part. We’re not just sitting on our butts with our hands out, saying, ‘Come do this for me.’ The extent of this catastrophe rises to a level where if it’s going to fall only on locals to help locals, we’re going to be in the thick of recovery much longer than we need to be.”
For many residents, life is now consumed by discomfort and distress. Days are spent negotiating bureaucracies for insurance help and government aid, cleaning ravaged homes and businesses and wading through the traffic jams of displaced residents.
“This has been the eight weeks of hell,” Mr. Cormier said, pausing a conversation as he noticed a fan’s blades slowly turn, a long-awaited indication that his electricity had been restored. “Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!”
Making the situation even more stressful is the realization that it reflects a new reality created by climate change. Rita marked a dividing line for many on the coast between a time when a storm of such intensity seemed to hit once in a generation and a new era where such catastrophic hurricanes had an unsettling frequency.
Now, some estimates place the damage caused by the recent hurricanes at $12 billion or more. Federal emergency officials have already approved more than $170 million in individual aid for Hurricane Laura’s victims, and members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation have pushed to increase federal support. The region’s economy has also been hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic and the collapse of the oil and gas industry, with refineries laying off dozens of workers in recent months.
Uncertainty about the city’s future has stoked residents’ fears about being disregarded and has underscored a distance that extends beyond the miles it sits from the state’s political and cultural centers of gravity.
“It lacks the panache of New Orleans, the political power of Baton Rouge and the personality of Lafayette’s Cajun and Creole culture,” The Advocate newspaper of Baton Rouge said in an editorial making an impassioned plea to save a city it described as “amiable.”
Still, for Priscilla Sam, Lake Charles is home. “Everything I know is here,” she said. She conceded that she had been tempted to leave. Her house was so badly damaged she cannot live in it.
For weeks, she had been sleeping on an air mattress in a back room of her beauty salon, Royal Treatment, surrounded by clothes, comforters and some of the other possessions she could salvage.
Now, after Delta, she is facing displacement again: The second storm had damaged the roof and soaked the walls. The smell of mold filled the salon. Her customers called for appointments. “But I’m not going to subject them to this for any amount of money,” she said even as a regular planted herself in the waiting area, hoping Ms. Sam would style her hair anyway.
“I started out complaining,” Ms. Sam, 52, said, standing beside her unmade mattress, tears welling in her eyes. “I was never able to imagine myself in a situation like this.”
Yet as she prayed for guidance, she realized she was one of the lucky ones. “They don’t have anything to come back to,” she said. “A lot of them aren’t going to come back and they don’t know where they’re going.”