This is a first-person account of how Hurricane Laura affected Southwest Louisiana by Matthew Bonnette, the McNeese State University sports information director. McNeese is accepting donations for the recovery effort at: https://mcneesefoundation.org/give/campus-emergency-fund/.
LAKE CHARLES, La. (Stats Perform) – It’s been a week since Category 4 Hurricane Laura changed the landscape of Southwest Louisiana, uprooted families who have called it home for generations; destroyed houses, businesses and schools that have made the area the most special place in the world.
I decided to evacuate my house in University Subdivision in one of the last hours on Wednesday, Aug. 26, thanks in large part to our local weatherman heeding the warning of the storm, which was upgraded to a strong Cat 4 but still with enough time to reach Category 5 status.
My family had evacuated a day before, but I had my animals still with me, and if anyone who really knows me, he or she knows my animals are like my kids.
It was 1 p.m. and I was loading my freezer with bottles of water because I knew the power would eventually go out and I would have some ice for a little while anyway. I was about to start clearing out my bedroom closet (one of the most centralized locations in my house) so I could use it to hunker down in with my pets if needed. I had already secured everything out in my yard and picked up as many things off the floor as possible in case the flood that was expected occurred.
I wasn’t watching the weather update on the TV, but I was listening, and Ben Terry’s enforcing directions to “get out” was enough for me. When KPLC and National Weather Service employees said they were evacuating, I knew it was going to be bad.
I headed to Biloxi, Mississippi, to join my family at my brother-in-law’s place, driving through several strong storm bands. The National Alert system on my phone was going off non-stop alerting of tornado warnings in the area where I was driving, on I-10, then I-12 through Baton Rouge, Hammond and Slidell. I finally escaped the serious threats the closer I got to Mississippi, but the whipping rain was still falling. I was amazed at how wide this storm was and the areas it was affecting.
I made it to Biloxi around 9 p.m. and went to bed around 11, telling myself I did not want to watch my city torn apart on live TV, but at 2 a.m., my youngest daughter woke me and her mother up to tell us the eye of the storm was knocking on Lake Charles’ door.
I got up and watched in horror as catastrophic winds thrashed the city and all of SWLA.
My friend Paul stayed back to ride out the storm, even after I pleaded with him for he and his wife to leave when I was preparing to head out. I tried calling him on his cell, but, obviously, got no answer. I reached out to his daughter through Facebook Messenger and asked if she had heard from him … a no there, too. But just a few minutes later, she messaged me back and said she just talked to him, reaching him on his home phone land line. Go figure! They were fine. Took shelter under a couple of mattresses in their hallway.
I went back to bed and prayed for my friend and his wife, and for everyone in Lake Charles and SWLA who decided to ride out, what was eventually announced to being the worst storm to hit the area in over 150 years.
I woke up early Thursday morning, packed the car and headed back west to LC.
I started seeing damage in Jennings … the wooden oil derrick just off the interstate was demolished.
As I got closer to Lake Charles, my anxiety began to soar through the roof. Passing Lacassine, an RV park on the right of the interstate just before the infamous, uncompleted water park was littered with the RVs that stayed. And later down the road, a mobile home park on the left was decimated with some units having traveled across the interstate and into the wooded area on the north side.
I exited off the Cameron/Chloe exit and made my way south on Highway 397 to McNeese Street. Making my turn on the street, the Dunkin’ Donuts and JD Bank, which sit across from each other on the corners, were both destroyed. As I approached the intersection of McNeese/Gerstner Memorial, power lines covered the road ways, so I had to turn around and take Corbina Road to Highway 14.
I finally got to Common Street and into my neighborhood, rolling over tree limbs, dodging power lines, going under utility poles … catastrophic was all I could think.
My best description that I’ve been telling people is that it looks like a nonflammable bomb exploded and took out the town. I made it to my house. Lots of damage, but it was still standing. I couldn’t say that for my neighbor across the street who had the front part of his house collapse or the many houses on my road that had trees sitting on or in their roofs.
I went to go lift up my garage door and noticed a nice-sized yellow jacket wasp nest on the outside part of my house near the corner of the garage door … full of lively wasps.
I didn’t bother them and they left me alone.
I assessed the damage on the inside, then outside. Again, like a bomb went off.
After taking a bunch of photos, I headed out to check on my parents’ and sister’s homes as well as many friends’ places and the athletic facilities at McNeese. I shut the door to the garage and gave those wasps another look to make sure I didn’t aggravate them.
Driving down Common Street, McNeese, Ryan, Lake, Nelson, Country Club Road … catastrophic. McNeese facilities … catastrophic.
After taking photos of their homes, I headed to Sulphur and then Moss Bluff to check on a couple of other family members houses as well as check the grave site of my father-in-law.
Everywhere, not just Lake Charles … catastrophic.
When checking on the grave site at New Ritchie Cemetery in Moss Bluff, I felt a sense that everything was going to be just fine.
Because sitting at each end of this Vietnam Veteran’s headstone were garden flags, one a LSU national championship flag and another an American flag.
Both were still in place. Old Glory was battered and beaten, but still standing. I took that as a symbol to all of us here in SWLA … we were battered and beaten, but still standing.
I’ve been back to Lake Charles almost every day since and to see the support from local businesses and leaders, support from other areas of Louisiana, the region and nation … it’s who we are as Louisianans, Americans, humans.
Neighbors helping neighbors … strangers helping strangers … wherever you go in town, volunteers are everywhere lending a hand. First responders … you can’t say enough about them. The line workers, law enforcement, National Guard, government officials, fire department, EMS, so many of them who have been greatly affected by Laura as well, but are putting their citizens first.
I go back to that wasp nest at my house. These wasps, and their home, endured over 100 mph winds, some gusts up to no-telling how high, yet they’re still there.
Just like Old Glory at my father-in-law’s grave, these wasps were battered and beaten, yet they survived, and whatever part of their home (nest) was destroyed, they’ve rebuilt.
That’s what we all here in SWLA will do.
We were beaten and battered by Hurricane Laura, but we’ll prevail, we’ll rebuild and we will be stronger because WE ARE SWLA!