LAKE CHARLES — If Ryan Street provides the commercial and civic lifeblood for this southwestern Louisiana city, then its heart pumped unevenly early this Christmas week.
Tia Juanita’s Fish Camp, a mainstay restaurant group along the Gulf Coast, remained temporarily closed here Monday, a status that many restaurants in this reputable dining town were experiencing. Locks stayed fixed on many business doors. Traffic seemed light. People were scarce.
Enter the front door and look up at Gigi’s Fitness Center, 719 Ryan St., for three decades a beehive of downtown activity, and the blue sky opens above you. Hurricane Laura destroyed the tony gym and health center; owners hope to rebuild.
COVID-19 spared no corner of Louisiana in 2020; the pandemic eroded economies around the globe. But Lake Charles and environs, twice pummeled by hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020, faced additional punishment and challenges steeper than anyone in the state.
Turn south toward McNeese State University, 4205 Ryan St., first Hurricane Laura on Aug. 27 and then Hurricane Delta on Oct. 9 delivered a one-two combo that staggered the public institution. The first, a Category 4 wind event, tore roofs off most of the campus’ buildings.
Six weeks later, Delta, which dropped up to 20 inches of rain in parts of Calcasieu Parish, peeled back temporary roofs or tarps on campus and flooded many of the same damaged buildings, adding flooding and mold issues to the structural ones. Damages to the campus’ core were estimated at $77 million after the first storm; the latter one added another $12 million or so just in the campus central area.
The campus hummed with construction Monday, the product of an aggressive university effort to getting things back to normal — that is, post-COVID’s launch but pre-hurricanes’ arrival. President Daryl V. Burckel; Richard Rhoden, director of facilities and plant operations; and campus spokesperson Candace Townsend said the mission calls for completing most of the repairs to the central campus by Jan. 8.
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To reach that goal, Rhoden said, construction crews are working daily, sometimes through the night. They’ll rest on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s; otherwise, they’re hellbent on making deadline on an airtight 71-day construction schedule.
Bryan Beam, administrator for Calcasieu Parish’s government, said McNeese has been “very aggressive” about building back, especially in that the university had to pause its fall semester for three weeks, post-Laura, to shift to all remote learning. The campus could no longer accommodate students after the first hurricane, and faculty and students had to adjust.
Good thing, too, Beam said. Activity around the business district, up and down Ryan and beyond, drives still more business.
“We are experiencing more optimism,” he said of the area this week. “We are changing from response mode to recovery. People feel better than even a month ago.”
But Lake Charles was a long way from recovery as Christmas neared. Sara McLeod Judson, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Southwest Louisiana, said she’s been gazing from an office window over Ryan Street toward a bright blue tarp across a roof across the street. It was there for months, but last week a crew began replacing the roof.
“We had blue tarps everywhere,” she said. They still do.
Insurance companies so far have paid $5.3 billion for losses in Louisiana across 236,928 claims from hurricanes Laura and Delta.
Encouraging, she said, is that most businesses don’t want to close or leave town. Along Ryan Street, she said, some businesses have vacated their damaged buildings to move into other, undamaged quarters, changing their address but not their customer base. Other businesses have been creative in how they serve people, opting for curbside service or different hours.
“The silver lining is that many local businesses are staying in business right now,” she said.
A principal challenge, she said, is getting good help. Some stores close early for lack of labor — the Neighborhood Walmart closes at 7 p.m., she said, because there is not enough help — and the labor shortage has been exacerbated by a shortage of housing in the city. She said a study of housing in the community shows that of about 44,000 housing units in Calcasieu, about 12,000 were highly damaged or uninhabitable. The result, she said, “is 1 in 4 people cannot be in their homes” to celebrate this Christmas.
“There’s a scarcity of rental property,” Judson said. “That’s true even in Sulphur and Vinton.”
Some Calcasieu people have moved outside the five-parish southwest Louisiana region to places like New Orleans, Lafayette, Crowley or Beaumont, Texas. Some of those people can work remotely, others cannot.
Beam said Lake Charles needs a vibrant downtown to succeed. Local governments, parishes and cities never close down and service levels have returned. But it costs money to power government services, and because of damaged property, the expectation is that property taxes, a primary source of government funding, will plummet, perhaps by 15% to 20%, as we approach a new year.
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He said sales taxes, which also fund government services, were down — Christmas typically is the most robust retail sales season — but are expected to rebound in some sectors. Rebuilding, for example, generates sales for lumber, tools, and more.
There are some bright spots downtown. Artist Candace Alexander, who operates a gallery on the first floor of the old Charleston Hotel at 900 Ryan St., said she sustained some immediate damage from Hurricane Laura, which shattered her gallery windows and sent artwork blowing from the building as far as five blocks away.
Her year had been challenging enough, she said, with the pandemic leading to cancellations of community festivals and art shows across the coastal states, typically places where Alexander enjoys a loyal fan base far from her Lake Charles home. Local political events created fissures in the community, too, and Alexander, pondering these and other current social issues, retreated from the communitywide angst, weighed her neighbors’ pain and produced a work of art called “Hope,” centered around her signature fleur-de-lis art, which was accompanied by a poem written by her partner, Paige Vidrine.
The work was complete and ready for sale by Sept. 23, and the reaction on her website was immediate: It “blew up” for sales, she said. Her plan had been to sell 100 prints; she sold them all that night. She upped the supply to 1,000 prints.
She said she had moved temporarily to Mississippi when Hurricane Delta hit; she added a second, related piece there, “Faith,” again with the fleur de lis, core, in what she knew would be a series of artworks. She took inspiration from the second piece from Pieter Bruegil’s “The Procession to Calvary” painting, she said, again using local symbols. Her third piece in the series, “Love,” followed, and sales ballooned, she said, as customers sought to own all three pieces, oftentimes with matching numbers. The result, she said, was she is enjoying her best year ever. On Monday night, her gallery remained open after dark, readily accessible for Christmas shopping long after other stores on Ryan had closed.
Others, though, still struggle in Lake Charles two months after Hurricane Delta blew through. Judson said Delta “expanded the footprint of damage” in the area, this time to the east.
Judson said the Community Foundation established a fund for storm victims, and America responded. She said an early contribution came in the form of three one-dollar bills from a worker in New York, a contribution that touched her heart. It was followed by a groundswell of support that included contributions from all 50 states and 10 foreign countries.
The largest gift thus far — $2.5 million — came from David Filo, billionaire co-founder of Yahoo! whose boyhood was spent in Calcasieu Parish. That money is intended to rebuild Calcasieu Parish with master planning in such a way that the area will not continue to suffer from repeated disasters. Contributions arrive every day, more than $6.5 million thus far, from community foundations, churches, civic groups and individual donors.
Most recently, the community was abuzz with news that philanthropist MacKenzie Scott had donated $5 million to the United Way of Southwest Louisiana, the largest single donation in the local agency’s history. The funds will honor Scott’s interest in supporting economic stability and lifting people on hard times because of the pandemic.
At Catholic Charities of Lake Charles, Sister Miriam MacLean of the Sisters of Mercy has ample connection to those crippled financially by the pandemic. As director of Catholic Charities in Lake Charles, she and her staff has been trying to meet people’s basic food and shelter needs.
“People are still not in their homes,” she said. She said her organization has been housing some of the homeless in area hotels and has been distributing food — 100 to 300 meals a day prepared by Second Harvest and Catholic Charities of Acadiana, and bags of groceries — from her warehouse in central Lake Charles.
She said funds have come from such sources as the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation and Chevron, including $75,000 from Chevron’s foundation that helped feed the hungry at Thanksgiving and will feed the hungry at Christmas. Catholic Charities has handed out more than 800 pallets of food since the storm.
She said Catholic Charities will provide about 1,200 people with groceries over the holidays.
She said she finds a Christmas message with every donation and is grateful for “the outpouring of support from around the country.”
Judson said she felt the Christmas spirit a few days ago when a single father in Vinton found the volunteer assistance he needed to move back into his repaired house. Bolstered by gifts from volunteers, he’s ready to join the ranks of volunteers to help others.
She said she takes solace from the generosity of others. She said the Salvation Army, Toys for Tots and KPLC Community Christmas combined efforts to help needy families this year. Last year, some 800 families were served. This year, the number will pass 5,300.
Beam said that Christmas will be different this year. Where there was abundance in Lake Charles last year, this year the resilient local people will be focused on recovery and draw their joy closer to home.
“The character of the people here gives me reason to be encouraged,” he said. “They’ll get stronger as things improve. We will learn to have the fortitude to stick it out.
“We have to connect with our churches, our faith, our community, our families.”