Hurricane Laura damage means it will be weeks before Southwest Louisianians can return home

Power and water are not expected to be restored for another month

By: - September 3, 2020 6:00 am
Lake Charles after Hurricane Laura

A Chevron station on Ryan Street is destroyed in Hurricane Laura. (Photo by Wes Muller/LA Illuminator, Saturday Aug. 29, 2020.)

Thousands of people won’t be able to return to their homes in Southwest Louisiana for weeks because they won’t have reliable access to power, water and sewer services, state officials and health experts said this week. 

The situation is especially dire in Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, which were hit directly by Hurricane Laura. The storm was the most powerful to hit Louisiana in recorded history. 

The homes of almost 240,000 people remain without power a week after Laura made landfall. The hurricane also caused “water outages” — which means reduced or no water service — that still affect the residences of 137,000 people. Another 420,000 are under a boil water advisory —  meaning their water isn’t safe to use right out of the tap, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. 

When asked when Southwest Louisiana residents might be able to go back to their homes, Gov. John Bel Edwards responded: “It is impossible to know with any precision. … We are going to shelter people as long as we need to.”

Louisiana’s Public Service Commission, which regulates utility companies, reported that nearly every household in Calcasieu and Cameron parishes remained without power Wednesday afternoon. Also, about90 percent of people living in Beauregard Parish were still without power.

Colby Cook, press secretary with the Public Service Commission, said the extent of damage to the power grid is more than the state has experienced in recent memory. There are over 200 electric towers that need to be replaced and multiple substations have been damaged — to say nothing of poles and individual lines, he said. It can take four 18-wheelers to bring just one large tower. The governor said the state has been able to find 30 replacement towers in Florida, but the state is still looking for others.

“Probably the damage from this is worse than the damage from Katrina,” Cook said. “Calcasieu and Cameron are going to be the longest” to wait before power is restored, he said.

Without power, it will be hard to bring many water systems back online. Several systems don’t have access to a backup generator or have backup generators that are not designed to keep the systems going for weeks, said Amanda Ames, chief engineer who oversees water systems with the Department of Health.

“We’ve never had this many people on a community water system be out of water,” said Ames, who has worked in Louisiana for 18 years. “Cameron, Calcasieu, Beauregard and Verrnon — all of those parishes have systems that might take weeks to be fully restored.” 

Several Louisiana communities have had a difficult time keeping their water systems up-to-date because of the cost, but Ames said even some of the state’s “excellent” water systems are among those down right now. They weren’t built to sustain an almost-Category 5 hurricane like Laura, she said.

Semendra Sherchan — a Tulane University water, sanitation and hygiene expert — said portions of Louisiana that don’t have water access will remain “uninhabitable” and that even after the water service comes back online, water for human consumption will have to be boiled first.

“It will take weeks to provide clean water and people have to consider all that,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “Without water, they cannot sustain their lives and they need to find alternative water sources — mostly bottled water.” He advised the people living in those areas to continue to take advantage of state shelters where access to water is assured. 

Clean water was also a problem in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and in Houston following Hurricane Harvey. It took months for some people to get to a point where they didn’t have to boil water. In those cases, massive flooding caused damage to the systems. What makes the Hurricane Laura recovery different from those events is that most of the water system damage is the result of extreme wind — not flood water, Sherchan said.

The state is currently providing shelter to about 11,500 Hurricane evacuees, mostly through hotels in New Orleans, but as many as 10,000 more Louisiana residents could be in Texas through a sheltering program set up by that state, Edwards said.

Edwards said the state will try to keep people in the hotel rooms where they are currently staying as long as they need to be there. Normally, the state would use more open-air megashelters, but they’ve contracted with hotels to provide more isolated housing in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

Calcasieu and Cameron parishes have kept their mandatory evacuation orders in place for residents, in part because of the lack of power and water services, said Mike Steele, communications director for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.