Hurricane Laura destroys, but volunteers rally to help Lake Charles survive

Volunteers from La. and Tex. rush to feed Cat. 4 storm’s survivors

Lake Charles after Hurricane Laura
Debris blocks the roadway near Prewitt and Bilbo Streets on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. (Photo by Wes Muller/LA Illuminator).

LAKE CHARLES — On Saturday, much of southwest Louisiana remained without electricity, water, food and other essential provisions in the wake of Hurricane Laura. While state and federal governments were still mobilizing assets, many residents turned to volunteers for help.

Thousands of vehicles waited in long lines at a single distribution point in downtown Lake Charles set up by a battery of Louisiana National Guard soldiers from the 141st Field Artillery Regiment from New Orleans’ Jackson Barracks. The unit arrived in the city late Friday and was distributing provisions at the Civic Center until about 6 p.m. Saturday.

An estimated 4,300 vehicles passed through the distribution point for water, ice and MREs (meals ready to eat), according to Sgt. 1st Class Doug Franklin. 

“There’ll be more of us coming soon,” Franklin said.

Gov. John Bel Edwards activated all 6,200 Louisiana National Guard soldiers to support civil authorities as needed. As of Saturday, the National Guard had assisted in evacuating 2,000 people and 20 pets from Calcasieu Parish. Their other missions include logistics, commodities distribution, road and bridge clearance, and placement of liaison officers to assist parish emergency operations centers, according to the National Guard’s public affairs office.

Another mission the military is conducting amid the disaster response — though apparently not advertising — is providing security for local independent pharmacies. The 156th Infantry Regiment was tasked to prevent people from looting narcotics from pharmacies. Each pharmacy had two Guardsmen posted onsite, though CVS and some other chains used their own private security guards to keep an eye on their stores.

Two soldiers guarding Boudreaux’s New Drug Store on East Prien Lake Road on Saturday said they were ordered to not speak to the press. 

The guard’s distribution point in historic downtown Lake Charles was open until about 6 p.m., but some residents who did not make it in time found hot meals and cold beverages brought by volunteers from east and west.

David and Dodie Thibodeaux of New Iberia, along with 15 of their relatives, loaded up nearly a half-ton of food in their personal vehicles and drove two hours to Lake Charles where they set up a makeshift distribution point of their own under a Mardi Gras tent not far from where the Jackson Barracks soldiers were posted.

The Thibodeaux family was serving 150 pounds of freshly-cooked red beans and rice with 80 pounds of sausage, 200 sandwiches, 80 cases of water and 40 cases of cold drinks. Lydia Food Store of New Iberia donated the bulk of the food, Dodie Thibodeaux said. 

A similar situation took place about a mile away on Ryan Street, where brothers from the Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity at Lamar University of Beaumont, Texas, set up a tailgating tent complete with a large smoker, music, and hundreds of pounds of chicken, hamburgers and hotdogs. The line of vehicles that formed for the fraternity’s food nearly rivaled the line for the National Guard.

Isaac Farias and Holden Lewis, both of whom organized the trip from Beaumont, said they drove more than three hours to get to Lake Charles, having first traveled to Baytown to get the food because, after the hurricane, food supplies are limited in Beaumont. The fraternity raised money from family and friends to pay for the food.

“We give it out for free to anyone who wants it, but we do like to remind people that it is all donated,” Farias said. He estimated that they served about 1,500 vehicles Saturday and plan to return with more food in a few days.

Volunteers from the nonprofit organization Task Force 75 helped with search and rescue and cleanup efforts. The group, made up of former Army Rangers from around the country, spent much of the day on an old German fire truck rebuilt as a high-water rescue vehicle. The men used chainsaws to clear roadways blocked by fallen trees, which was nearly every roadway in the city.

“We like to help out when we can, and it gives us an excuse to all come together,” said Jeremy Witten of Moravia, New York.

For other veterans, Task Force 75 provides a therapeutic value that they can’t find at home or work as a civilian, founder Eric Carlson of Lemont, Illinois said.

Response efforts from FEMA and other government agencies were not as visible to the public, as they are still working to restore critical infrastructure such as hospitals, telecommunications, electricity and water supply. Those efforts could take several more weeks. 

Initial estimates of damaged or destroyed power transmission towers due to Laura were around 170, but the Public Service Commission has since increased that number to 500, the governor said in a press conference Sunday.

Restoring electricity to Lake Charles will be a “long and difficult process,” Edwards said as he asked residents to be patient. Restoring water service may take a while, too, the governor said, because many public water systems are out because they have no electricity.  Other water systems suffered direct damage.

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Wesley Muller
Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.