Laura brings back bad memories

LAURA TOPS RITA — Hurricane Laura hit Lake Charles, La., with an historic punch Thursday morning, eclipsing the damages caused by Hurricane Rita in 2005.

The odds are Hurricane Laura could have lashed the Lake Charles area by the time you read this, so what happens next is anybody’s guess. However, we went through this hurricane experience 15 years ago when Rita came to call, and it was a nightmare.

The storm hit this area Sept. 24, 2005, on my son Bryan’s birthday. He was part of the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury’s emergency team that stayed on the job throughout the ordeal. Bryan said they learned many lessons from the failures that occurred before, during and after Hurricane Katrina hit southeast Louisiana Aug. 29.

Jo Ann and I were lucky. Two friends of Liz Meek, our ex-sonin-law Gary’s mother, let us use an apartment next to their home in Shreveport. The trip to Shreveport on Sept. 22 took a full day. Traffic was horrible, bathrooms weren’t easily available along the way and gasoline was hard to find.

In an effort to get closer to Lake Charles, Bill and Camille Claibourne took us into their Lafayette area home a week later. Camille is the sister of Edith, our daughter-in-law. We have never felt more at home than we did there.

Katrina evacuees who had come to Lake Charles had to be transported to shelters north of here in advance of Rita. Yellow school buses, like those that sat unused and flooded in New Orleans during Katrina, were the people’s ticket out of this area.

Gary and I slipped back into Lake Charles before we were supposed to in an effort to check the damage to our homes and Bryan’s. Gary has a sixth sense about what needs to be done in emergency situations and he bought the blue tarpaulins and wood strips we needed to cover the badly damaged roofs on all three homes.

When residents started returning, they found widespread destruction. We were lucky because extreme water damage to houses that didn’t have those blue tarps kept many residents out of their homes for a long time.

Gary and I drove here from Lafayette and thought we would spend our first night here in my carport. However, the city is a weird place without traffic and streetlights, and bustling businesses. And it was awfully hot without air conditioning and safe drinking water, so we headed back east.

Electricity, the precious fuel that we take granted, runs almost everything we use in our daily lives. And Lake Charles was a city without power, sewerage and other services.

People stayed with families, friends, in shelters, motels and hotels, at Toledo Bend, in Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi. It was anywhere they could find a place to rest and plan for the next day and then the next.

Only two lives were lost and that was nothing short of miraculous. And for that, we thanked public officials, civil servants and law enforcement.

Apex Broadcasting used Radio FM 99.5 to spread the word 24 hours a day. KPLC-TV got back on the air quickly to do its job. And the American Press published on the internet and in Lafayette until its presses were up and running again.

Two things made the situation before, during and after Hurricane Rita different from what we saw after Katrina in the New Orleans area. It was superb leadership and the willingness of people here to play by the rules.

Getting things back into shape took months. Some roofing companies had from 400 to 700 jobs lined up. Skilled labor and other help was in short supply. Improvement centers at Stine’s, Home Depot and Lowe’s were doing a booming business.

Plywood and generators were the big-ticket items before Rita arrived. Afterwards, it was roofing materials, chain saws, generators, gasoline cans, tarpaulins, roof turbines and sledgehammers.

I eventually lost the one tree in my yard, but Gary and I had to cut away many limbs right after the storm. I wrote about my first-ever purchase of a chain saw and the problems I had with it. That column generated more feedback than I could have ever imagined.

I could never get that chain saw to run for any length of time, and the place where I bought it had a noreturn policy. I pulled on the starter rope a hundred times one morning, but it wouldn’t start.

The starter rope got wrapped around the wrong wheel at one point. I took it apart and put it back together, but it still wouldn’t start. By late afternoon the next day, my right hand was swollen from cranking almost all day. I just gave the chain saw to a mechanic at the newspaper, and swore I would never buy another gasoline-operated chain saw again.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita definitely changed the life and character of this state and created problems large and small. We did survive and hoped we would never have to go through the same experiences again. Here’s hoping Laura is a nicer lady than Rita.

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