LAKE CHARLES — At an RV park she never intended to call home, Patricia Theriot was picking up laundry when she paused to answer a question about whether last year’s hurricanes had brought her there.
“I’m tired,” she said, reflecting on her family’s saga since August 2020. She offered an uneasy laugh, as if it were all too absurd to be real.
The conversations that followed that day and later told of a journey that may seem extraordinary for those who haven’t spent time around Lake Charles recently. But for those who have, parts of it may seem numbingly familiar, echoing the struggles of many still not back in their homes nearly 10 months after Hurricane Laura.
It included evacuations to Mississippi, Texas and Lafayette, and the shock of seeing the family home wrecked. The Theriots have battled with their insurance company and come up short, lost cherished valuables to theft and now live out of a travel trailer where they also regularly babysit grandchildren — though they are glad to help out and have the company.
Their house is only a short drive away, but it remains unlivable with some repairs done and others unfinished. The family is in many ways the embodiment of southwest Louisiana’s sputtering recovery from last year’s two hurricanes, not to mention a February winter storm and heavy flooding in May — all during the pandemic.
Faced with the daunting task of putting the region back together, local officials have been pleading for supplemental federal aid to assist with housing and rebuilding the economy. They have so far failed to obtain a relief package, and with another hurricane season now underway and displaced residents possibly deciding whether to abandon the region for good, they say the situation is in a critical phase.
Patricia Theriot, 62, and her husband, Rogers, 70, aren’t planning to leave. But they want to go back home, to the house that they had inherited, was paid for and had plenty of room.
In the meantime, they make the best of it. Patricia is still attempting to cook meals she learned from her German mother in their trailer’s small kitchen. Rogers is devising plans for the house when they return, including buying an electronic drum kit with headphones so he doesn’t disturb his wife.
“I would at least like to get on my own driveway,” Patricia, who drives a school bus for a living, said of moving the trailer there if they can install electricity for it. Rogers, a retired truck driver who has been to 46 states, is hoping for the same.
Numbers tell the story of the struggles of the region, which has coped with four natural disasters since August.
Hurricane Laura hit on Aug. 27 with winds of up to 150 mph, making it Louisiana’s most powerful storm since 1856, leaving a wide swath of destruction in its wake. Around six weeks later, Hurricane Delta, a Category 2 storm, followed a similar path, bringing heavy rain and flooding.
February’s winter storm burst pipes and caused further damage to homes, and on May 17, intense rains overwhelmed drainage systems that were still blocked in places by hurricane debris.
Dealing with that gantlet of catastrophe was made all the more complicated by the pandemic, which affected everything from insurers’ responses to the cost of rebuilding materials.
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One study showed around half of all homes in Calcasieu Parish sustained some form of damage. Lake Charles officials now estimate that between 3,000 and 5,000 residents, of a population of roughly 78,000, are still displaced, a number that increased following the May flood.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has moved in to assist with temporary housing and other programs. It lists more than $1 billion in assistance so far, including Small Business Administration loans.
But the region says a full recovery will not be possible without supplemental disaster relief from Washington, which will require legislation. Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter would like to establish a program to cover the gap between what insurers are paying and the true cost of rebuilding, similar to how the Road Home program worked post-Hurricane Katrina.
Hunter has repeatedly made the case for help, including directly to President Joe Biden when the president visited Lake Charles in early May — though the trip was mainly focused on the White House’s infrastructure push. Biden also called Hunter after the May flood.
Asked on Thursday how much longer the region could go without supplemental federal aid, Hunter sounded exasperated. “It's an absolute travesty,” he said. “It's unconscionable. It's unfathomable.
“And every day that goes by that we don't have supplemental disaster aid is another day that Washington, D.C., failed southwest Louisiana.”
Hunter criticized suggestions from some that the White House must initiate the legislation to grant supplemental aid. Members of Congress could do it themselves, he said, adding that he “would feel better if someone put forth a bill and at least allowed the opportunity for others to vote on it.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards has called for federal dollars to address what he describes as $3 billion in unmet needs. In a Nov. 20 letter to then-President Donald Trump, he spoke of nearly 47,000 homes destroyed from hurricanes Laura, Delta and Zeta, which hit southeast Louisiana in late October. Two-thirds of them were in the Lake Charles region, he wrote.
In a Jan. 22 letter to Biden, Edwards asked the newly sworn-in president to request “a supplemental appropriation from Congress to fill the enormous gap that will exist between the available funds and the costs to rebuild.”
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The state’s congressional delegation has also been advocating on behalf of the region, though progress on achieving supplemental funding has not been publicly apparent. U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, whose district includes the area and who claimed voter fraud in the presidential election, opted not to show up when Biden visited in May.
Sens. John Kennedy and Bill Cassidy, by comparison, joined Biden on the New Orleans leg of that trip.
A spokesman for Higgins provided an extensive list of the congressman’s advocacy related to hurricane recovery, including speeches, letters and visits.
Higgins suggested his absence for the presidential visit was Biden’s fault. “President Biden’s itinerary was quite late and disorganized compared to our experience with President Trump’s visits to Louisiana, and I was obligated to attend many scheduled engagements with constituents across the district,” he said in a statement. “I honored those commitments.”
He added: “I don’t work for Joe Biden. I work for We, the People, and my focus will not be dictated by career politicians, including Joe Biden. My office will respect the presidency and work with the inaugurated Biden regime for the betterment of Louisiana and America, but I will not bow at any politician’s feet.”
There have been hopes that other Louisiana connections to the Biden White House might help make the case. New Orleans native Cedric Richmond is a senior adviser to Biden, while the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, Shalanda Young, grew up in Clinton and Baker.
Cassidy again spoke of the need for disaster relief on the Senate floor on Thursday.
“This community will not recover at the way things are going,” he said.
Longtime political analyst Ron Faucheux said “what concerns me about it is whether or not the partisan polarization that's going on in Congress is affecting something like this.”
“If that's the case, that's a terrible thing because what that means is people are putting politics above people in their state,” said Faucheux, a former Louisiana state legislator. “I'm not accusing any individual of doing that, but if the delays are attributable to that, that would be the worst possible reason.”
‘Always got a home’
In the meantime, families like the Theriots do what they can. On a recent day in their trailer, Patricia Theriot held her feverish 2-year-old grandson as she and her husband spoke about their battles.
They evacuated to Mississippi for Laura after Patricia convinced Rogers they had to leave. Rogers made it back the day after the storm, giving his son a ride to work, dodging downed tree limbs while low-hanging power lines scratched his Jeep.
Asked about his reaction when he arrived, his eyes widened and he said: “Whaaat?” Parts of his roof were torn off and his shed was destroyed.
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They eventually relocated to Lafayette and began work on the house, but with the cost of hotels so high, they decided to buy a trailer, having spent lots of time camping in earlier years. With Delta on the way, they packed up the trailer. They ended up south of Houston in an RV park.
Delta and its heavy rains ruined the inside of the house, which sits just outside the Lake Charles city limits. They eventually found a spot in a nearby trailer and RV park. Because they’ve exhausted their insurance proceeds, they’re paying the rent out of pocket, along with other costs like storage.
They’ve also had to deal with more disappointment. Family heirlooms like dishes and a punch bowl from Patricia’s mother were stolen from the house.
The house was covered for only up to $201,000 by their insurance, and they’ve received around $170,000. They calculate it will take at least $100,000 more to rebuild properly. They’ve considered whether to hire an independent adjuster. They wonder whether the $201,000 limit should be doubled because the house was hit by two storms.
They care for three grandchildren during the day, and a fourth lives with them permanently in their one-bedroom trailer. Rogers helps out family members and their church by cutting grass.
Patricia has to undergo an operation for a nerve issue later this month, but she seems unfazed, well-practiced in dealing with difficulty. Rogers said the stress of dealing with so many post-storm challenges worsened her condition.
Asked how they spend their time in such a small space, Patricia said, “There's not much you can do.”
“I'm constantly picking up, moving things, straightening, vacuuming, sweeping, or I'll clean up and just cook or bake something just because I can't stand to just sit here,” she said.
Rogers said they would never refuse to welcome family, no matter the situation.
“When her and I got married, my parents always said, ‘You’ve always got a home to come home to,’ ” he said. “I said that with my kids.”
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