Biden in Lake Chas

President Joe Biden made a pitch Thursday for his $2 trillion infrastructure bill, called the American Jobs Act. He used the 70-year-old Interstate 10 bridge over the Calcasieu River as a backdrop, suggesting the bridge could be replaced if the plan is passed.

President Joe Biden pledged help with hurricane recovery and argued in favor of replacing Lake Charles’s dilapidated and nearly 70-year-old Interstate 10 bridge as he visited the city on Thursday to promote his massive plan to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.

The longtime politician also made sure to throw in an anecdote about meeting legendary former U.S. Sen. Russell Long when Biden was 29.

But while Biden spoke of helping the region get back on its feet, the majority of his 30-minute speech was about his wider national infrastructure plans, and there were few specifics on what actions he would take regarding storm recovery in and around Lake Charles.

The president, dressed in a navy blue suit with aviator sunglasses, spoke along the city's waterfront adjacent to its downtown, the hulking I-10 bridge over the Calcasieu River and its arched truss in the distance behind him.

The city’s 22-story Capital One tower and its dozens of blown-out and boarded-up windows, perhaps Lake Charles’s most prominent example of the damage left in the wake of the two hurricanes that devastated the region in August and October last year, was also within sight.

Signs around his podium included a picture of the bridge with the slogan: “Getting America Back on Track.” A smattering of local officials, along with Gov. John Bel Edwards, were in attendance, as was a group of workers in hard hats whom Biden spoke with after finishing his speech, exchanging fist bumps with a few.

Congressman Clay Higgins, who represents the area, did not attend and could not be reached for comment. U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy joined Biden on the New Orleans leg of the trip, as U.S. Rep.-elect Troy Carter, who will be sworn in next week.

“It’s hard to believe that you got hit as badly as you have within the timeframe you have,” Biden said of Hurricanes Laura and Delta, which ripped through southwestern Louisiana last year.

He added later: “I believe you need the help. We’re going to try to make sure you get it. But the people of Louisiana always have picked themselves up, just like America always picks itself up … I promise you we’re going to build back better than ever, more resilient.”

But Biden's message was much more focused on infrastructure than hurricane recovery. He pitched a new I-10 bridge as part of his $2 trillion-plus infrastructure plan, questioning why it’s taken so long.

“It shouldn’t be this hard or take so long to fix a bridge that’s this important. It makes no sense,” Biden said. “But the truth is across the country, we have failed. We have failed to properly invest in infrastructure for half a century.”

Earlier, Edwards and Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter also made pitches for hurricane relief along with a new bridge. Local officials have been concerned that the region's dire recovery needs would be overshadowed by the focus on the bridge and the infrastructure bill.

Edwards, who compared pocket rosaries with Biden when greeting him upon his arrival, also spoke of repairing infrastructure statewide.

“Our needs still far exceed our means. The bridge behind me is a fitting example of that,” the Democratic governor said. “Louisiana’s roads and bridge infrastructure right now is rated at a D-plus. And Mr. President, my wife and your wife are educators, but you don’t have to be an educator to know that a D-plus is simply unacceptable.”

Hunter spoke of the hurricanes as well as a severe winter storm that hit the area in February. The Republican mayor noted that though he and Biden were from different parties, they could agree on the need for infrastructure and help for his city.

“Lake Charles is a great American city and we continue to need a great American response,” Hunter said.

Later in the day, Hunter said he “would have liked to have heard a proposed supplemental (storm relief) package, and when I say that I include that message to President Biden and Congress.”

However, he added that during his short meeting with Biden before his speech, the president seemed “very receptive” to the region’s concerns.

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Hunter also expressed frustration with political divisiveness and posturing in Washington in general, which he sees as preventing progress on storm relief.

“I’m really getting tired of the search for headlines and social media shares and points with a politician’s base rather than actually getting some things done for disaster recovery,” he said.

Speaking of the lack of the kind of storm relief local officials say is needed, he said “that is a failure of Washington, D.C., and I include all of Washington, D.C. in that comment. And I am tired of the political grandstanding and the political divisiveness and the polarization of D.C. filtering down and affecting the ability of people to come together and work to help southwest Louisiana.”

Local officials in Lake Charles and Calcasieu Parish see federal hurricane relief as long overdue and desperately needed to help move more residents back into their homes and reopen businesses that haven’t been able to do so more than eight months after Hurricane Laura, which was followed six weeks later by Hurricane Delta.

Category 4 Laura was one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the U.S., with winds of up to 150 mph, causing an estimated $19 billion in damage in the state. Delta, a Category 2 storm, left behind further misery and followed an eerily similar path.

Calcasieu Parish Police Jury President Brian Abshire said he believes both hurricane recovery and infrastructure are important and made the case in a brief meeting with Biden before his address.

“I did tell him Trump couldn’t get us a bridge, but I’m confident you can,” Abshire said.

Lake Charles estimates that some 3,000 residents remain displaced, while that number rises to around 4,000 for all of Calcasieu. FEMA has been providing mobile homes and travel trailers as temporary residences.

A population analysis recently published in The New York Times provided a disturbing figure: Lake Charles was estimated to have lost some 6.7 percent of its population in 2020.

Local officials say the number was to be expected and they believe many have since returned. More needs to be done to bring the rest back, they say, with Lake Charles estimating its housing needs alone at more than $230 million.

As for the bridge, few if any will argue that it shouldn’t be replaced. It was completed in 1952, before the I-10 existed, and was later integrated into the interstate system.

A local task force on replacing the bridge says it was designed for a 50-year lifespan — meaning 2002 — and with a capacity for 37,000 vehicles per day.

The task force’s Jim Rock said recent counts put the total at 90,000 vehicles, including many large trucks traversing the key artery stretching nationwide from Los Angeles to Jacksonville. The White House says it currently carries over 80,000 vehicles daily and that its last inspection listed it in “poor” condition.

Rock said the bridge is regularly inspected by the state and it is deemed safe for travel, but if it were to be shut down, traffic would be nightmarish.

Beyond those issues, Rock said other safety hazards include the bridge's steepness and its lack of shoulders.

The cost of replacing it has ranged between $600 million and $800 million, he said, with the state likely to cover around 10%. Current plans call for tolls to cover much of the rest.

“The biggest hurdle is funding,” said Rock.

“These bridges are very expensive, and there’s only so much money that can come out of the state coffers. And with President Biden here today, particularly with him talking about infrastructure, we think this is a key piece of infrastructure that is sadly overdue to be replaced with a bigger and better bridge. We’re right here in the epicenter of energy in the United States with the LNG traffic and the business that we have here with the industry.”