Frank Wilson experienced an all-too-familiar feeling when he drove back into town on Friday.
The McNeese State head football coach found himself navigating roadways crossed by dozens of downed power lines. Store windows shattered in pieces on the concrete below. Pine trees uprooted or snapped in two. Building after building barely recognizable because of ripped-off roofs or fallen brick walls.
The destructive path left behind by Hurricane Laura was a horrific scene, but one Wilson had witnessed 15 years earlier when he was an assistant coach at Ole Miss when he traveled back to his native New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
“It was deja vu,” Wilson said. “It was just like when I was driving back into New Orleans. To see all the destruction — debris all over, houses caved in from trees and flood waters. The only difference was the deceased people in the homes.
“I have a tremendous amount of empathy for those people that had to endure this.”
It was Heath Schroyer’s first time experiencing a major hurricane. The Maryland native, who is McNeese’s interim athletic director and men’s basketball coach, admits that he was overcome with emotion when he returned to campus on Friday.
“It just rips your heart out,” Schroyer said. “It is truly devastating. I have been here for two years. I have fallen in love with this community and the people in this community. This storm was a punch in the gut ... but in the past 48 hours I have realized just how special the place is because of the people. I am so proud to be part of this community. The spirit motivates me.”
The entire Cowboy athletic family will be relying on that kind of spirit moving forward in the weeks and months ahead, as the athletic department, university and the greater Lake Charles area begin to recover from the disaster.
According to Schroyer and McNeese State sports information director Matt Bonnette, most of the athletic facilities on campus were damaged by Hurricane Laura.
- Cowboy Stadium: The press box for the football facility is severely damaged and the brand new video scoreboard (which was to debut this coming season) was damaged. More than a few of the stadium light poles on both the east and west side have been bent or split in half. Two bleachers at the practice facility were blown away and landed near Cowboy Stadium. Another wound up at an apartment complex a quarter mile away.
- H&HP Complex: The Cowboys’ state-of-the-art basketball complex, which opened two years ago, had its roof punctured resulting in six inches of water on the floor. There is a hole in the side of the arena and an even bigger hole in the side of the practice facility.
- Joe Miller Ballpark: The Cowboys’ baseball facility, which was beginning a $600,000 renovation, had its grandstand torn out, dugouts damaged and fences and scoreboard damaged. The new club area behind the bullpen was totally destroyed.
- Joe Miller Field at Cowgirl Diamond: Like the football stadium, the softball facility’s press box suffered damage; the recently remodeled dugouts will now need to be redone.
- Nancy Hank Tennis Center: The large cinder block wall that bears the facility’s name was knocked down and damaged.
For Schroyer, the devastation to H&HP was especially tough.
“I walked in there and I got emotional,” he said. “Every time I talk about it it makes me emotional. I know how much work it took to get it there. It is the nicest building in our city and not even close.”
The athletic department is wasting no time in starting to cleanup and restore its on-campus facilities. Schroyer said hundreds of people were already descending on H&HP to start cleaning up debris, patching holes and make other repairs. When that's done, they will move on to the other facilities.
“We are not waiting,” Schroyer said. “We are going to clean out all the debris from our campus and facilities. Then we will go from there.”
Schroyer said the message to coaches and athletic department staff has been to take care of their families first. Later this week, they will come up with a game plan to bring students and student athletes back to campus.
“The athletes are connected to this community and they are anxious to help,” Schroyer said. “That is so great to feel and hear but our whole city is without water and power. It is tough time right now from a logistical standpoint to take care of them. Once we are able to secure their well being then we will have them back there.“
For Wilson, that means pausing the strength and conditioning program via Zoom and just spending the next days checking in on his coaches and more than 100 players — many of whom may not truly grasp the scope of what has occurred.
“They don’t understand the severity of no running water, no power, no cell service,” Wilson said. “Those things are all real. The message for our kids right now is that it is time for us to slow down. Let’s be there for one another and just not our team. But also for that person that lost their home, or for that person whose parents are out of work or maybe ill. Let’s be sensitive to what’s most important and that is life.”
Despite the massive amount of damage, the Cowboy athletic leaders firmly believe that it all can be rebuilt.
“The one thing you can take comfort in this is that (Hurricane) Rita was bad in 2005 and we rebuilt,” Bonnette said. “I think we can take comfort in that knowing that we can and will recover from this.”
“It’s all replaceable,” Schroyer added. “We are going to build it back, build it bigger and stronger than ever before. That also applies to this community and the people that make this place so great.”