LAKE CHARLES — New misery visited upon southwest Louisiana last week — low water pressure that forced public building closures and bedeviled families, as well as widespread loss of power during record, bitter cold — will stay front-of-mind for local leaders after the weather improves.

The goal: better prepare Lake Charles and its environs for future winter storms.

Parish leaders say they might be able to use federal funding targeted for repairing local infrastructure after Hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020 to better protect the area against other dangers as well, such as the sudden and serious winter storms experienced here. Specifics are few but that's a guiding principle moving forward, to bear winter weather in mind alongside other possible disasters.

Bryan Beam, Calcasieu Parish administrator, said low temperatures last week reached 14 degrees, the coldest weather in the parish in more than three decades.

“We’re still in the middle of this,” Beam said late last week. Water-pressure problems and losses of power, he suggested, may be more “long lasting” than some believe. He said the parish was moving ahead as if the power problems would be resolved by Monday, but there’s no guarantee they will be.

Around Lake Charles and beyond, people were feeling the pain from this latest weather assault. At Catholic Charities of Southwest Louisiana, director Sister Miriam MacLean was preparing for food distributions at Big Lake in Cameron Parish on Thursday and from her Lake Charles warehouse Friday. One hundred people registered for the first event, 300 for the second.

The cold spell, she said, is worse than the hurricanes in some ways.

She said the city of Lake Charles, Calcasieu Parish and Catholic Charities teamed up to find housing in hotels for some 160 people who were homeless or near homeless. That included people whose homes were destroyed by the hurricanes and who’ve been living in campers, sometimes on the same land as their damaged properties. Catholic Charities has been providing food to those people in need.

Many of the nearly homeless are without utilities and have been even before the storm, such as one man who lives in a camper near the convent. The nuns check on him routinely to make sure he’s OK.

“It’s discouraging,” she said. “For those who don’t have means, it’s a huge problem” to have broken pipes and related damages on top of hurricane-related damage.

“People are strong here, though,” she said. “You’ve got to be strong to live here.”

At Cajun Navy headquarters downtown, a handful of volunteers were transporting water Thursday to places where it was needed — which includes about everywhere in and around Lake Charles. They describe themselves as an all-volunteer group that varies from 10 to hundreds when called upon to help.

Operating downtown out of a storefront on Ryan Street — the organization was preparing to move south in Lake Charles last week — its volunteers have been distributing donated food, clothing and supplies to those in need.

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Dina Ehrlichman, a volunteer, said the Cajun Navy distributed some 300 heaters, food and blankets during the cold. They delivered all hours of the day, she said, including to people living in tents and under bridges.

She and volunteer Roger Bee said the headquarters was depleting its stock for its planned move but had to increase its supplies again for the sudden cold weather. They say the need will continue.

Beam and Alberto C. Galan, assistant to the administrator, say the parish needs to learn from its hurricane recovery and from current problems in order to plan for a better future. Galan, who’s heading up efforts for hurricane recovery for Calcasieu, said federal dollars might be used to protect the parish against problems in addition to hurricanes, like wintry weather.

“It crippled things to not have water pressure,” Galan said. In the past week, the parish government had pipe breaks at two public works buildings, the mosquito control site and at animal services. A pipe broke at Prien Lake Park’s sprinkler system, too, where the parish had been issuing permits. Serious, too, is that the loss of water pressure might affect fire protection.

“We are used to preparing for hurricanes, floods and chemical leaks,” Beam said. “Severe winter storms are different.”

Beam said losses in water pressure in Calcasieu happened after Entergy, which provides power in Calcasieu Parish, was notified by MISO, which oversees transmission of power in several middle American states, about pressure on the power grid because of customer demand. Entergy reduced power to myriad accounts, including water systems in Calcasieu, on short notice and the water systems, in turn, have been unable to fully power back up since. That, he said, is the short version.

Brandon D. Morris of MISO said decisions must be made quickly on shedding the energy load to protect the system's integrity. He said during emergencies, suppliers must take "load shed action" as soon as possible or within 30 minutes after instructions are issued.

"Controlled outages are a last resort in order to prevent a larger system outage and are only directed in rarest circumstances," Morris said. MISO directs each utility to shed a specific amount of load.

Beam said funding for “hardening” the parish’s infrastructure might come through either of two federal programs: Community Development Block Grants or through Hazard Mitigation Grants. Typically, Federal Emergency Management Administration money helps fund the cost of addressing immediate emergency needs, while CDBG and hazard mitigation funds address infrastructure needs.

Galan and Beam said building or hardening infrastructure can address several threats simultaneously without requiring additional money. Some steps might protect parish infrastructure during hurricanes as well as winter storms.

Galan and Beam both said what lessons Calcasieu learned about operating generators as back-up power during the hurricanes probably helped them in securing and operating generators during power losses last week. Alas, diesel fuel to power generators fell short as the week wore on.

Beam said the parish is hopeful that the weekend will give the water systems time and opportunity to gain pressure. That, he said, would be a blessing to a parish and region where so much has gone wrong in the past year.

COVID-19, two major hurricanes and now devastating winter storm “feels a bit like piling on to a segment of the population that has had more than its share of disaster,” Beam said.

“We need a chance to get off the mat.”


Email Ken Stickney at kstickney@theadvocate.com.