LAKE CHARLES — If there were ever any novelty in living without air conditioning during a sweltering September, fighting off mosquitoes inside your home and sparring with insurance adjusters for hours on end, it has long since worn off for southwest Louisiana residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura.
Waiting for breakthroughs over the past couple of weeks has not been easy. Those still living in the area are making do under damaged or missing roofs, breathing in mold and mildew, playing a joyless version of musical chairs as they figure out which rooms are livable enough to occupy in a disaster zone.
But there has also been some impressive progress in Lake Charles two weeks after the storm hit: water has been restored nearly everywhere, though it’s still under a boil advisory, and power is also starting to come back in pockets, a much quicker time frame than most dared imagine.
“I would have never thought that two weeks out, we would have water operating, our sewer plants operating and electricity popping up in pockets of Lake Charles,” said Mayor Nic Hunter. “They didn’t have to repair a system, they almost had to rebuild an entire electrical grid. And they did it.”
For now, though, life after Laura poses plenty of challenges.
Jimmy and Mercedes Aguillard have had to relocate to the first floor of the south Lake Charles farmhouse where they raised eight children, their second floor too damaged to allow them to sleep in the master bedroom up there. For Vickie Parker and her neighbors in Moss Bluff, north of Lake Charles, the heat has turned their usual 3 p.m. “coffee time” meetups into patio gatherings with cold drinks and bug spray. And for Chris Livergood and his partner, who live in the center of Lake Charles, not even Livergood’s wreaths, ornaments and other décor can do much to disguise the blue tarp overhanging their lavender living room, a reminder of where a tree smashed through their roof.
In Laura’s immediate aftermath, Lake Charles was desolate, with most people remaining evacuated, nearly all businesses closed and widespread wind damage blocking roads and making many homes unlivable. But two weeks later, royal blue roofs dot Louisiana’s sixth-biggest city as it sputters back to life, with linemen trying to restore power, volunteers serving free hot meals and a few businesses advertising abbreviated hours.
Most of the city’s traffic lights remain inoperable, turning every intersection into a four-way stop. Generators hum throughout the day and the night, while tree limbs, vinyl siding and furniture sit out on front lawns. The smell of pine, which wafted through the city from all of the downed trees shortly after the storm, is gone. In its place: some neighborhoods smell like rotting food, thanks to the reeking refrigerators in their front yards.
Many who have stayed to tough it out say they feel they had no other choice: They need to start fixing damage to their homes, and their insurance policies won’t pay for them to stay elsewhere in the meantime. While the state is paying for thousands of hotel rooms for evacuees across the state, most of those now in Lake Charles say they want to start putting their broken lives back together.
The misery has some unexpected upsides. Many of those who remain in Lake Charles, for instance, say they’ve discovered a level of kinship and community with neighbors they hardly knew before the storm.
“We counted on the community for more than I ever thought possible,” said Livergood, 40.
Battling heat, holding onto memories
At the Aguillards’ farmhouse in south Lake Charles, Jimmy and his wife, Mercedes, snacked on banana pudding in their kitchen one afternoon while several of their adult children and grandchildren gathered. Jimmy, now 77 and retired, worked as a rice farmer for much of his life.
His children want their parents to move somewhere else, given the extent of the damage to the family home. Already, they’ve stripped carpet from a first-floor sitting room and stairs leading up to the second floor. Upstairs bedrooms, damaged by water after the roof was compromised, have largely been stripped down to wooden paneling walls, wooden floors and wooden furniture. One of the few second-floor rooms that remains furnished is the master bedroom, where Mercedes’ wedding gown from 56 years ago and several paintings of Jesus remain.
“The memories we don’t want to let go of and the things we want to remember” are what make them want to stay, Mercedes explained. They also don’t have insurance on the house, so Jimmy’s unsure how they could afford to start anew. He hopes to gut the upstairs and permanently live downstairs.
The Aguillards were among the first to get power back, on Sept. 9, but their air conditioning still wasn’t working the next day.
Over at the house where Livergood and John LaFleur have lived since 2008, LaFleur has rigged a combination of generators and window units to cool the house and allow them to use most of the appliances. But while the house is livable, it’s little consolation for what they’ve lost: Several rooms have mold damage, and the tree through their roof means that they’ll have to redo their living room. The gardens where Livergood spent years tending to roses, angel’s trumpets and other plants are gone.
Their backyard oasis where twinkling lights and grapevines once hung down from above is now a brown pit of mud and destruction. Meanwhile, bugs have been invading the living space.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say we’re starting to be overrun by insects entering our home; here I am with the Raid bottle trying to make sure we’re not inhaling too much of it,” Livergood laughed. “It’s kind of like ‘Naked and Afraid’ with clothes on.”
The mosquitoes have been so voracious in the aftermath of the storm that officials at the LSU Ag Center are warning that mosquito swarms are leading to cattle deaths. Insects feast on livestock, draining their blood, leaving the animals exhausted and unable to draw in enough oxygen.
Up in Moss Bluff, a few miles north, the boundaries between inside and outside can also be fuzzy. The inside of Parker’s home has been running between 86 and 87 degrees without air conditioning. The heat is so miserable that she and her neighbors prefer to spend their time outside.
“The heat just zaps you,” said Tricia Reeves, Parker’s sister and next-door neighbor.
Reeves is living in an RV until her power comes back on. Others in their neighborhood have a single window A/C unit that they’ll enjoy at night, with families crowding into a single room with cool air. Parker is hoping she’ll have power back in time for her 65th birthday next week.
Their crew in Moss Bluff plans daily outings to keep themselves entertained and to get a break from baking in the sun. One day, they drove over to Orange, Texas — about an hour away — to visit a washateria. Another day, they visited the newly reopened Rouses in Moss Bluff. And they all get together every night to cook a big dinner for about 15 people: one night they grilled chicken, the next night they used leftovers to make chicken salad, and on the third night they fried fish and shrimp.
“We have been eating good, but now we’re out of freezer food,” said Kim Dyer, Parker’s niece.
While Hunter, the mayor of Lake Charles, is pleading with Americans not to forget about the extent of damage in his city after the storm, he’s also urging volunteers to keep stepping up. He reminds people that they can donate money to charities and community organizations working on the ground, that they can use social media and other platforms to keep Lake Charles in the national consciousness, and they can also volunteer their time.
Groups need manpower to muck houses, clean yards and tarp roofs, he said. Once Lake Charles gets through the basics of restoring power and disposing of waste, Hunter said, leaders will have to figure out how to house the many residents who have no homes to return to.
“Though this was a catastrophe and a tragedy of epic proportion, the city of Lake Charles did not receive a knockout punch,” he said. “We did not dodge a bullet; we got hit. But Hurricane Laura is not something that is going to prevent Lake Charles from bouncing back.”
For some of those picking up the pieces, the kindness of strangers and neighbors alike has been overwhelming.
Livergood said Catholic Charities gave him a bucket of cleaning supplies, toiletries and food. When he tried to give the group a cash donation in return, he said they turned it down and simply told him to use his money to help others.
He and LaFleur also got a hand from the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, which is continuing cancer treatments for their poodle, Zeus, even though they can no longer afford to pay those bills.
When Parker and her family visited the washateria in Texas, her cousin Kathy Sullivan said, a woman came up and filled her hands with quarters.
And Jimmy Aguillard said he was shocked when he went to pick up supplies at a nearby church called the Vineyard, and a woman in a wheelchair came over to help him. He said it was touching to see so many neighbors helping one another.
“That’s what keeps your courage up, and you’re willing to go on,” he said.