Lake Charles prepares for presidential visit

A podium awaits President Joe Biden, who will speak in Lake Charles Thursday afternoon. He is expected to use the antiquated I-10 bridge in the background as a backdrop to his talk pushing his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan. Biden will later be in New Orleans. (Staff photo by Mike Smith)

LAKE CHARLES -- President Joe Biden visits this hurricane-wracked city on Thursday, and the location of his speech along its waterfront leaves little doubt about at least one issue he plans to address.

A nearly 70-year-old hulk of a bridge and its arched truss will be starkly visible behind him, serving as what Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter called the “poster child for the need for a robust federal infrastructure plan.”

Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure outline could help replace it, and he is expected to promote the ambitious package during the visit.

But while local officials are pleased that their long fight to replace the bridge — the Interstate 10 span over the Calcasieu River — is receiving White House attention, they hope the president also glances off in the other direction and takes note of what he sees there.

If he does, he’ll see the city’s 22-story Capital One tower and its dozens of blown-out and boarded-up windows, perhaps the most visible example of the damage left in the wake of the two hurricanes that devastated southwest Louisiana in August and September last year.

For Lake Charles and Calcasieu Parish, federal hurricane relief is 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 United States, 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 infrastructure is important, but if he is given a chance to speak with Biden, he wants to stress the importance of the need for federal hurricane relief in a region with dire needs.

“We still have residents in Calcasieu Parish that are suffering from home damage — businesses destroyed and operating out of makeshift locations,” Abshire said. “So any additional dollars that could be allocated to the residents of the area would be greatly appreciated.”

Hunter has said “it would be just a grave miscalculation if the president came to town and did not address hurricane recovery and the fact that we are now close to 250 days post-Hurricane Laura and we still do not have a disaster relief package approved from Washington, DC for southwest Louisiana.”

Such an oversight would be “a grave injustice,” Hunter said.

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Lake Charles officials estimate 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% 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 — which expired in 2002 — and with a capacity for 37,000 vehicles per day.

The task force’s Jim Rock said recent counts put the daily total at 90,000 vehicles, including many large trucks traversing the key artery stretching nationwide from east to west. A White House official said 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 a toll to pay for most 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.”