Like every place in Louisiana that isn’t New Orleans, Lake Charles usually doesn’t enter the national consciousness. The catastrophic damage Hurricane Laura inflicted on the region hasn’t registered either.
Struck by the most powerful hurricane in Louisiana since 1856, the 200,000 residents in the Calcasieu Parish area face months of challenging recovery. An evacuation order remains in place for the parish, which includes the cities of Lake Charles, Sulphur and Westlake.
Along with their fellow Calcasieu Parish residents, the area’s internationally known musicians returned to find homes and communities shattered by the storm. It’s another hard blow in the year when the coronavirus pandemic has deprived them of performance work since March.
“In my 73 years, I’ve never seen devastation come across Louisiana like this,” said Grammy-winning Cajun musician Jo-El Sonnier, a Westlake resident. “Nothing but debris, everywhere. Everything is shut down. I hope someone reaches out a hand and says, ‘Hey, what can be done to rebuild this place?’ We have to figure how we can get back in our homes and back into our lives.”
Sonnier’s damaged A-frame house still stands, but the roofs on adjacent structures were ripped away, allowing damage to his stored merchandise and musical gear. Sonnier’s wife, Bobbye, estimates that, due to the enormous demand for rebuilding, it will be a year before they can live in their house again.
“But a lot of people have a tree through their house and nothing to rebuild,” she said.
When zydeco musician Sean Ardoin, a two-time Grammy nominee, returned to Lake Charles two days after Hurricane Laura’s landfall, he saw transformers and telephone poles in the streets and a city that looked as if it had been bombed.
“Not one person here hasn’t been affected,” he said.
Ardoin is commuting from Beaumont, Texas, to his wind-, water- and tree-damaged home. Wind gusts of 100 to 135 mph toppled a large oak tree in his front yard and left his gazebo leaning on the house.
Mickey Smith Jr., a saxophonist and band director at Maplewood Middle School in Sulphur, put his small city on the map in January when he won the Grammy Music Educator Award for 2020. Hurricane Laura left 97% of Smith’s school district’s sites severely damaged.
“I’m blessed because our band hall at Maplewood Middle School only took on a little water,” Smith said from San Antonio. “But some people have lost their entire buildings. Facilities were completely flooded, instruments ruined.”
Smith lives in the Maplewood neighborhood. Hurricane-force winds blew his home’s doors in and portions of his roof off. Water wrecked the piano in his home. An exterior building that served as a rehearsal studio and storage unit for his musical equipment was destroyed. Despite the destruction, Smith is staying positive.
“My made-up scripture for this season is ‘Blessed are the flexible.’ This, too, shall pass.”
Because their home also is uninhabitable, the Sonniers are staying in a small space at Care-Help of Sulphur Inc., the food bank and thrift store where Bobbye Sonnier works. Jo-El Sonnier has helped unload truckloads of donations brought to Care-Help by the couple’s friends, Holden-based actor and singer John Schneider and his wife, Alicia Allain. Baton Rouge media personality Scott Innis and the United Cajun Navy also joined the Schneiders in their Convoy of Hope.
“They’re our angels,” Bobbye Sonnier said. “We wish that everybody affected by this storm had as many angels as what we have.”
The New York City-based Jazz Foundation of America has begun providing emergency grants to musicians affected by Laura, funds for basic expenses, including rent, mortgage payments, utilities and groceries.
“The images and stories being shared with us by dozens of musicians, many with small children, are devastating,” said Jazz Foundation Executive Director Joseph Petrucelli.
The Grammy Awards-affiliated MusiCares is another source of support for musicians.
“If someone in the music industry needs our help, we welcome the opportunity to help them,” said Debbie Carroll, vice president for health and human services at MusiCares in Nashville, Tennessee.
Despite having their lives rendered unrecognizable by Hurricane Laura, the Sonniers, Smith, Ardoin and other Lake Charles-area musicians are upbeat.
“It’s been a rough few days,” said Jeremy Boudreaux, a Cajun music drummer and owner of the severely damaged Village Music School. “But people in Lake Charles, we get stuff done. It’s remarkable to see how people are pulling together now.”
“Louisiana’s got the soul,” an emotional Jo-El Sonnier said. “Now, we have to carry our spirit, and embrace each other and work together to build Louisiana even better than it was before.”