Lake Charles Family

A memorial banner for family members died after being poisioned by a generator's fumes in Lake Charles. From left to right: Rosalie Lewis, Clyde Handy, Kim Lewis Evans and Chris Evans.

Rosalie Lewis and her husband, John, were pillars of their Lake Charles neighborhood, and as the first Black female postal service supervisor in southwest Louisiana, the family matriarch was an inspiration, family members say.

Their sturdy home withstood the wrath of Hurricane Rita in 2005 and more than a half-century before weathered Hurricane Audrey, one of the deadliest tropical cyclones in U.S. history that smashed ashore in southwest Louisiana in the late ‘50s.

Believing the home would hold up and unable to travel because of medical conditions, Lewis, 81, her husband and three other relatives hunkered down as Hurricane Laura unleashed furious winds that tore through the city Thursday, sparing few homes and buildings in its path.

They all survived, and the house did, too, miraculously with very little damage.

But hours after the storm passed, Rosalie Lewis and three others were dead after the generator they set up in the garage filled the home with poisonous fumes. When emergency crews arrived, John Lewis was the only person still breathing.

“They made it through the storm and there was a freak accident,” said Patrick Perry, a cousin of Chris Evans, who along with his wife, Kim Lewis Evans, 56, and Rosalie Lewis’ brother, Clyde Handy, died from the generator's fumes. “It’s been a roller coaster ride.”

The family had set up a generator in the garage, but the fumes later seeped through an open door and filled the home with carbon monoxide, according to authorities and relatives.

Family members say they still aren’t sure how the door came open while the generator was running an appropriate distance away.

Of the 14 deaths related to Laura, eight have been caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from generators. Four deaths in Texas have also been linked to the deadly gas as of Sunday, according to state officials there.

The odorless and colorless gas is especially dangerous when people are sleeping because they can die before exhibiting symptoms, such as dizziness or confusion, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s a silent killer,” Perry said.

Broad swaths along Laura’s 40 mile-wide path likely won’t have water and electricity for several weeks after the storm damaged dozens of water plants and other utility systems. For those who’ve returned, local officials have urged them to only come to assess damage and turn back until basic utilities are repaired.

Lewis and her husband often left their homes during hurricanes and did so for Rita. But they decided to stay and weather Laura because some of the older relatives had health conditions that made it difficult for them to travel, family members said.

Kim Lewis Evans and her husband had stayed with her parents, who weren't able to evacuate the city.

“She couldn’t leave her parents behind,” said Perry, who grew up in Lake Charles and works as a cameraman for WBRZ-TV in Baton Rouge.

Family members had feared that all five people in the home had died, but they weren’t told until Sunday that John Lewis was still alive, said cousin Frances Spencer, a freelance journalist and former Advocate employee.

He was in critical condition though and had to be sent to a hospital nearly 100 miles away in Alexandria to receive specialized treatment for acute carbon monoxide poisoning.

John Lewis was still on life support Monday, and doctors say he had a low chance of recovering, according to relatives.

The Lewis’ moved to Lake Charles in the 1950s, living around the corner from Mount Olive Baptist Church, where they attended services. Other relatives moved into the neighborhood around the same time, Spencer said.

John Lewis drove 18-wheelers for Kroger grocery stores, and family members say his job made him an ace navigator who was always able to avoid traffic.

Granddaughter Caitlin Lewis wrote on Facebook that her "pawpaw" John had pushed her “to keep going beyond the limits of our hometown,” and her grandmother’s career achievements served as a powerful inspiration.

“She taught me to set an example and to prove that Black women are just as strong, just as smart, and just as capable,” she wrote. “Every time we were together, she got emotional telling me how proud of me she was.”

Kim Lewis Evans was the Lewis’ only daughter, and Caitlin Lewis recalled fond memories she had bonding over perfume and purses.

Her uncle Chris Evans would make the "best gumbo in the world" every time she’d visit, even going as far as to make a small pot and tell others not to touch it because it was for her.

Perry said funeral arrangements haven't been set for the family. With no water or electricity in the city, coupled with other logistical complications due to the coronavirus pandemic, much is in flux.

“The city is torn up and everything around there is destroyed," Perry said. “Everything’s pending.”


Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com, and follow him on Twitter @youssefrddad