"I've misplaced all the pieces": Within the hurricane-ravaged Louisiana, individuals are struggling to rebuild
Tracy Miller, 60, carries an object through the floods left after Hurricane Laura landed on the Texas-Louisiana border in Cameron, Louisiana on August 30, 2020.
Callaghan OHare | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Two days after Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana in August, Tameka Nelson returned to her beloved daycare in Lake Charles to find her in ruins. She fell to her knees and sobbed.
The storm tore off part of the roof. Years of toys, handicrafts and important documents were destroyed inside. Nothing could be saved and the building had to be demolished.
"It was devastating. Everything I worked for is gone," said Nelson, 40, who has run the Nelson Academy daycare for 15 years. "I lost everything."
Nelson found a rental building and spent her savings building a new daycare center. But with no government funding and no deadline to get approval to open the space by the end of the year, Nelson fears her time and money will run out.
Hurricane Zeta lashed the Louisiana coast this week, the fifth storm to hit the state during a long and stressful season. The storms have decimated homes, forced widespread evacuations, and cut power to thousands of people. The working-class town of Lake Charles was hit particularly hard by Hurricanes Laura and Delta in August and October. Thousands of people are still displaced.
During the dangerous global coronavirus pandemic and one of the most brutal hurricane seasons, people are trying to restore their homes and businesses – an excruciating process that has become routine for Louisiana residents.
Some have endured weeks of frustrating haggling with bureaucracies for insurance money and government aid. Others are desperate for help repairing destroyed properties but are long waiting for sought-after shooters, some of whom have been dealing with damage to their own homes.
"Knowing that my community needs me because parents have to go back to work and my workers need their jobs to pay bills. I'm at a loss," said Nelson. "I pray to push forward."
Amid the turmoil, Louisiana residents share unpleasant memories of past devastation from major hurricanes like Rita in 2005. They also prepare for future storms that will become increasingly frequent and catastrophic with climate change.
Hurricane Laura collapsed the roof and destroyed the interior of Tameka Nelson’s daycare center in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Courtesy Tameka Nelson
Cameron, a town south of Lake Charles, has been gutted by hurricanes in the past few decades. After the area was devastated by Hurricanes Rita and Ike in 2005 and 2008, many people left the country and the population fell by nearly 80% by the end of the decade, according to the US Census.
Laura destroyed entire homes and killed over a dozen people in Cameron. Six weeks later, Delta released further destruction. The combination of storms made it difficult for some people to tell which storm was causing what damage.
57-year-old Jennifer Picou from Cameron and her 60-year-old husband Terry lost their home to Rita for the first time 15 years ago. When Laura blew through the house this year and ripped the roof off her house, the couple replaced it with a makeshift one. Then Delta came along, tore it down, and continued to flood the house.
They are now living in an RV and struggling to manage their local fishery with no electricity, running water or cooling. However, Picou claimed they were lucky because their home was insured in a way that many Cameron residents are not.
It is unclear how many Cameron residents can afford to rebuild homes after the hurricanes this year as construction costs are inflated and building codes tighten.
"It's total destruction here," said Picou. "You come back with nothing. This is heartbreaking."
Recent hurricanes have damaged residential and commercial properties in Louisiana at least $ 12 billion, according to estimates by real estate data analyst CoreLogic. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has already approved more than $ 180 million in personal and home aid for victims of Hurricane Laura.
Kaitlynn Hollier, 32, a mother of four who lives just outside Lake Charles, said Laura destroyed her home in August. She and husband Jeremy, 33, moved their family to a temporary RV that was eventually destroyed by Delta.
Kaitlynn Hollier's children from Louisiana visit her home after Hurricane Laura damaged it in August.
Courtesy Kaitlynn Hollier
After weeks of negotiations with their insurance company and camping with friends, the family finally received insurance money for a few months' rent and can start repairs to their home. But they said the contractors are currently spread out too thinly.
"I'm exhausted. It's a slow process and we have to repeat everything in the house," said Hollier. As her family settles into the rental apartment near her home, Hollier is concerned about how the displacement has affected her young girls, ages seven, five, three, and one. During the moving process, she noticed that her girls sleep less and are more irritable.
"Stress manifests differently in children. To have to move so much, to be displaced and to see their home that way," said Hollier. "We're trying to rebuild and keep up with the work at school."
There is uncertainty about what the future will look like for residents of hurricanes like Cameron and Lake Charles. But some residents who have suffered severe loss are also required to stay if they can afford it.
Nelson, the daycare owner, fled New Orleans to Lake Charles in 2005 to escape Hurricane Katrina, the massive Category 5 that killed 1,800 people and caused $ 125 billion in damage.
Years later, Nelson investigates the aftermath of Laura – the loss of her business, the rubble of a fallen tree on her home – and says it is time to help rebuild the community.
"We came here to start over … we worked so hard," said Nelson. "I wouldn't turn my back on Lake Charles. We'll be here for a while."