The scope of Hurricane Laura’s damage to southwest Louisiana’s water and power systems came into sharp focus Friday, prompting hospitals to evacuate patients and forcing some residents who stayed during the storms to seek new shelter elsewhere, as officials said it may be weeks before clean water and utilities are restored.
Hundreds of thousands were without power and water across the state Friday, and the severity of the damage to several water systems has complicated efforts to get residents back in their storm-battered homes safely. Lake Charles looked particularly grim, as rain lashed the city throughout the day and few braved the catastrophic damage and road conditions to return to their homes.
Amanda Ames, the chief engineer at the Louisiana Department of Health, likened the damage to water infrastructure to that seen after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
“This is definitely a bigger issue than we normally see. We always have power loss after a major storm ... but significant damage to water systems is not something that occurs after storms like this,” Ames said in an interview Thursday.
Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter said the city’s water plants “took a beating.” As residents returned to their homes, he said there is “barely a trickle” of water coming out of most homes and he was unsure when power would be restored. He cautioned people to be prepared to live in those conditions for “probably weeks.”
“‘Look and leave’ truly is the best option for many,” Hunter wrote in a Facebook post.
But that’s not what everyone was planning. Leven Abshire was covered in pine tree pulp Friday as he used a chainsaw to cut down trees in hopes of clearing enough roadways near his home for others to get through and start helping. He had loaded up on gas, tarps, water, phone battery packs and more to help him as he hoped to make a dent in cleaning storm damage.
“People say, there’s no water, no electricity, you’re crazy,” he said. “But I mean, s--t, who’s gonna do this? I’ve got the tools to do it.”
Contractors are making repairs at two Lake Charles water plants that were battered by the storm, said Aly Neel, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Health. But they estimate it will be at least one week before they can produce water with generator power. Even then, they “cannot guarantee that it will be fully functional, that they will be able to provide 100% or that they can fully treat the water.”
The water troubles became so acute that Lake Charles Memorial Hospital, the largest hospital in the area, evacuated its 146 patients after officials realized it may be weeks before they are able to gain access to the city’s water system again. Seven ambulances lined up in front of the hospital on Friday afternoon after the evacuation order was announced.
“We just can’t function as a hospital without water,” said Matt Felder, a spokesman for the hospital.
The lack of power throughout Lake Charles has also complicated the lives of some who survived the storm itself, but were left with few options in the aftermath. At Tower Oaks Apartments, a senior citizen complex, many people hunkered down but lost roofs and had carpets soaked during the storm, along with other damage. They also had no running water or electricity.
Chris Romero, 67, said residents received notice Friday morning that they had to be out by the end of the day, and by late afternoon, they were gathering up food, musical instruments, clothes and other possessions as they hurried to get out. The evacuation efforts, however, were complicated by the lack of power: one wheelchair-bound resident who lived on the third floor couldn’t get downstairs because the elevator was no longer working.
Several rescue teams – including the Lake Charles Fire Department, the Cajun Navy, Empact Northwest and others – banded together to bring the woman downstairs. They cradled her in a basket and seven people worked together to slide her, step by step, down the cement steps. Once they got her down, she turned to the crew and clapped her hands.
Felder said Lake Charles Memorial would remain open for limited emergency services. And other health officials stressed there will still be access to emergency care in the region, which is critical in the days following a storm, when recovery-related injuries are common.
At least 10 other hospital and behavioral centers, as well as 11 nursing homes, also evacuated patients and residents, according to the state Health Department.
About 23% of the state was out of power Friday, said Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for Gov. John Bel Edwards, spanning 518,478 homes and businesses. As of Friday afternoon, 98 water systems statewide were inoperable, affecting an estimated 177,000 people.
Many of those systems will likely come back online once power is restored and they can generate pressure to pump water to homes and businesses.
But others, like the systems in Lake Charles, DeRidder and the parts of the greater Alexandria region, face more severe problems that could take weeks to resolve.
Paul Salles, CEO of the Louisiana Hospital Association, said most of the hospitals that evacuated patients did so primarily because they lacked clean water to chill their buildings, run machines and sterilize equipment.
“It has a kind of cascading effect in a hospital,” Salles said. “Water is critical for a lot of their systems.”
Bud Barrow, president and CEO of Beauregard Memorial Hospital in DeRidder, said workers noticed the facility lost water at about 4 a.m. Thursday, as the storm was ripping through the region, because the toilets stopped flushing.
That hospital needs about 12,600 gallons of water a day to operate, Barrow said. Most of that, 12,000 gallons is for operating chillers that cool the facility, plus several hundred more to run chemical and lab analyzers and run laundry.
Since the hospital lost water, he has relied on the fire department to come fill up the chillers, and the hospital has cycled between cool and “very warm.” When it gets above 80 degrees, Barrow said IT servers, imaging equipment, lab equipment and other resources stop working properly.
“We’ve been hot more than we’ve been cool,” Barrow said Friday. “We don’t need 68-70 degrees. Just get me under 80. I’m not trying to be comfortable. I’m trying to be cool enough to keep the equipment operating so I can take care of patients.”
Barrow requested potable water from the state emergency department, which has agreed to bring tankers to the facility to allow it to keep operating.
As Clarence Gray assembled a generator with his sister, Catherine Green, in the driveway of his home in Lake Charles, he said he’s “never been as overwhelmed” as he was Friday. Behind him, his garage was flattened and his roof was leaking. Gray bought the generator with plans to move back into the heavily damaged home, lack of power and water be damned.
"I can’t be dishing out all this money on a motel, you know?" Gray said. "So I had to go buy a generator and I’ve got to thug it out in my house."
Staff writer Bryn Stole contributed to this story.