Heavy thunderstorms inundated streets, stranded residents and flooded hundreds of homes in Lake Charles and other parts of southwest Louisiana on Monday, leaving officials stunned at the prospect of facing another weather disaster as the region rebuilds from last year’s Hurricanes Laura and Delta.
The intensity of the storms that began in the morning took many by surprise, and some residents who suffered damage from the hurricanes were now being forced to deal with flooding, officials said. More rain was also expected in the days ahead.
Between 6 and 15 inches of rain had fallen by around 6 p.m. in parts of Calcasieu and Jefferson Davis parishes, the National Weather Service said, and a flash flood warning remained in effect until 7:45 pm. A number of tornado warnings had also been issued in various areas and the NWS urged residents at risk to seek higher ground.
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As of around 7 pm, the NWS had recorded 12.44 inches of rainfall in Lake Charles.
“We know that the amount of rain that portions of the city of Lake Charles sustained today will absolutely eclipse what we received form Hurricane Laura and will probably come close to what we received for Hurricane Delta,” Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter said.
“The amount of flooded homes in the city is not determined yet but will absolutely be in the hundreds," Hunter said, "and I believe we will have more homes flooded in the city of Lake Charles from this rain event than we had from Laura and Delta.”
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Parts of Ryan Street in Lake Charles, the city’s main thoroughfare, were transformed into a shallow lake with drivers maneuvering through bumper-high water and pushing waves into parking lots. Residents leaving work or just out on errands tried to figure out how to get home, sometimes catching rides with friends in trucks or just waiting it out on high ground.
Deborah Gremillion, 64, had gone to pick up a pizza near her home but found herself on an unexpected odyssey as she searched for a safe route back. She had left home at about 2 p.m. but was still trying to find her way back nearly two hours later in her Chevy Spark, she said.
“No matter if people honk at me or not, I’m going real slow because I’m so low,” Gremillion said as she drove through a parking lot instead of trying to cross a flooded intersection as her pizza grew cold on the passenger seat. “Once I get over I’ll be all right because my streets are up kind of high.”
The Advocate has hired a veteran reporter to cover the recovery of Lake Charles and Southwest Louisiana from last year’s twin hurricanes.
Further down the street, Thomas LeBlanc, 52, was trying to help employees at his law firm get home safely, helping find them rides if their cars were too small to make it through the deluge.
“I’ll probably have about a half a dozen cars left in the parking lot tonight,” said LeBlanc, whose firm is operating out of new offices after Laura damaged their building last year.
He said he wasn’t sure if any of their homes had flooded since they were yet to arrive back there. Around 13 staff work out of his office.
“I don’t think anybody expected this. We have no idea what it's going to be tomorrow either,” said LeBlanc. “I have not seen water like this in a really long time … It’s just been so much, so quick.”
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Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a State of Emergency Monday evening, allowing state resources to be used to aid local storm-response efforts.
“We are only a few weeks away from the start of hurricane season, but this threat is the latest in a string of recent weather threats that remind us of the importance of preparedness and staying informed,” Edwards said in a news release.
The Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office reported that “it appears all areas of the parish are experiencing flooding on the roadways and conditions are deteriorating and changing quickly.” The agency had deployed boats and high-water vehicles, it said in a statement.
“We are also urging residents to stay put and do not travel on the roadways,” Sheriff Tony Mancuso said. “Driving on the roadways at this time is putting yourself in danger, along with causing damage to other residents’ property from the rising water.”
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Kayla Vincent, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said “we are getting reports of houses being flooded throughout Calcasieu Parish” as well as businesses.
Local officials were still determining the extent of the flooding. Asked about the repeated storms, which also include a severe winter storm in February, Hunter said: “I don’t even have the words anymore.”
“I can’t find the words to describe what we have gone through, but certainly even this is not something that is insurmountable,” he said. “We will continue to be resilient through this event. But I will admit it would be nice if Mother Nature would give us a break.”
Much of the Lake Charles area continues to rebuild after last year’s hurricanes, which followed similar paths only six weeks apart. Category 4 Laura was the most powerful hurricane to hit Louisiana since 1856 in terms of wind speed, while Category 2 Delta caused flooding.