Like many of the Lake Charles evacuees gathered outside a downtown hotel Monday, all Billie Jean Chelette could do was accept her fate.
It was too soon to go back home to a town devastated and largely powerless after a Category 4 hit 19 days before. And it was too late to leave New Orleans as Hurricane Sally approached.
“You know what? I’ve just reached the limit of what I can think about,” said Chelette, 78. “We’ll just keep plodding on.”
Most of the evacuees who mingled under the breezway of the SpringHill Suites hotel said they were not only anxious, but weary. Many of their houses in the Lake Charles area were in shambles, and they were in no mood to endure another storm. But with money short, cars totaled, and time running short, they were out of options.
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“I have PTSD right now, I think,” chuckled Joanne LaFleur, another evacuee. “The tropics have gone crazy.”
While Hurricane Laura’s victims may have fallen quickly out of the national spotlight, their challenges linger on. Water has been restored nearly everywhere in the hurricane zone, but electricity service is still limited to pockets of Calcasieu Parish. Meanwhile, debris and downed trees make navigating streets a challenge.
“It’s unreal,” said Darrell Broussard, a 67-year-old retired Coca-Cola salesman who’s made trips back. “It’s like they dropped an atomic bomb.”
Many evacuees are quartered in a constellation of hotels in downtown New Orleans. Some have made regular trips back to put tarps over roofs, clear their property and begin the painstaking work of gutting their homes. But the difficult conditions and the lack of power means they must remain in New Orleans for the foreseeable future.
Broussard, who lowered his Saints face mask to puff on a Salem cigarette, said he was grateful for the help he’s received in New Orleans. But he’s still anxious to return home.
One non-profit organization aiding the evacuees says it will continue to provide services regardless of what happens with Hurricane Sally. Many are receiving food at their hotels as they attempt to secure emergency aid, tangle with insurance adjusters or try to get prescriptions filled.
“We knew months ago it was going to be a really active hurricane season,” said Katy Sandusky, the regional communications manager for the Southeast Louisiana Chapter of the American Red Cross. “We are not going to slow down or stop any kind of service to our evacuees from southwest Louisiana, no matter what happens in Southeast Louisiana.”
Still, Sandusky said the organization is concerned about donor fatigue in a year when the economic downturn and various disasters have made it harder for people to open their wallets.
Robert Davis, a 27-year-old deejay, said he has been out of work since the coronavirus pandemic shut down live music events. Then the storm left his Lake Charles home uninhabitable and his truck unusable.
“Out of work. Covid. You name it. It just piles up,” Davis said. “We’re stuck here. We can’t really go nowhere. All we can do is just pray.”
Like Chelette, Joanne LaFleur could hardly stand to think about another storm so soon after the one she rode out in Lake Charles. A little over two weeks ago, she huddled with family, including her husband, daughters, and three grandchildren as Laura lashed her home. Her grandson cowered in her lap as the storm’s wind walloped the house.
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The south Louisiana double whammy reminded LaFleur of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which hit the state within weeks of each other 15 years ago this summer. Rita damaged her house then, although it was far less serious than Laura’s destruction.
“It’s too many disasters back to back,” LaFleur said.