Eye of the Storm
In the shadow of Katrina, the parishes of “Imperial Calcasieu” stagger from Rita
n a Tuesday evening. George Swift is popping a bag of popcorn in his Lake Charles home, marking the end of another day, most of which he spent attending one meeting after another.
As executive director of the Southwest Louisiana Partnership for Economic Development, Swift can’t get away from the inevitable fact that meetings will be part of his everyday life for the foreseeable future. Calcasieu, Cameron, Beauregard, Jeff Davis and Allen parishes – an area collectively known as Imperial Calcasieu – are attempting to put themselves back together in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, the largest and most destructive storm to strike Southwest Louisiana since Hurricane Audrey in 1957.
Should Swift’s mind stray from the reality that the region suffered the brunt of nature’s Category 4 winds, all he has to do is look outside his window.
“I can count one, two, three, four, five houses easily that were destroyed and have to be rebuilt,” Swift says. “At my house, we experienced some roof damage. Water came in, the floors have to be replaced, but just look at the house down the street – it had a tree fall right in the center of it.”
The microwave beeps, and Swift excuses himself to grab his popcorn. Simple pleasures are the order of the day. For many of the area’s residents, amenities such as a comfortable bed, normal grocery-store hours, telephone service and a good dinner at a restaurant are still on hold.
Of the parishes visited by Rita, Calcasieu and Cameron were most adversely affected.
In Cameron Parish, everything from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to the Intracoastal Waterway is gone or damaged. Rumor has it that the day Rita came ashore in Cameron, a 90-foot wave and 200-plus mph winds preceded her. Neither claim has been substantiated by the National Weather Service, even though unofficially, some government weather officials think such immense natural forces could account for the utter devastation experienced in Cameron.
“Cameron lost 98 percent of its homes,” says Fred Richard, operations chief for the Cameron Parish emergency-response office. “Essentially we lost all of our infrastructure, like roads and utilities. We’ve been brought to a screeching halt.”
In northern parts of the parish, people live in homes, mobile homes and tents. More than 1,000 workers are trying to restore utilities and get the parish breathing again. Cameron has also been forced to contend with the slow opening of oilfield contractors’ offices, the temporary loss of the Creole Nature Trail, which serves as a major tourist attraction, environmental damage from damaged oil platforms and spilled containers, and the closure of numerous privately owned businesses.
There is good news, however. Mother Nature has started her own cleanup process; animals are slowly returning to once polluted swamp areas. And the rural parish reported no loss of life among the 10,000 or so residents. Only two hurricane-related deaths were reported in Calcasieu, a parish of 185,000.
Like its neighbor to the south, Calcasieu is fraught with vegetative and man-made debris, blue tarps on homes and businesses, and countless other problems that an outsider might not notice. For instance, there’s a worker shortage caused by the loss of thousands of homes and apartments. Businesses that are open operate on limited schedules.
There’s also an increase in traffic from an untold amount of new people and workers in the city.
Meanwhile, the local powers that be from the business and governmental sectors have begun the process of compiling a recovery plan. The playbook is one authored by the federal government. The endeavor is helped by the fact that the regional and international airports in Lake Charles, interstate highway systems, Port of Lake Charles, and the petrochemical complexes in Westlake and Sulphur sustained only minimal losses and are all operating. But one of the major casino businesses in the lake area, Harrah’s, is still trying to recover from heavy storm damage.
One of Swift’s many tasks is to communicate the formula that will be used by all Imperial Calcasieu government officials. “Town-hall meetings are scheduled for each parish so damage assessments can be discussed and rebuilding priorities can be outlined. After the locals figure out what they need to rebuild, it is expected that the federal government will then cut a check,” he explains.
McNeese State University economics professor Dr. Michael Kurth stresses that any recovery dialogue has to begin with acknowledgement of the area’s vast social and human capital resources. “If you have the human capital, like education and work skills, and social, meaning the political infrastructure, then you can knock down all the buildings you want and turn around one year later and everything is built up. If you don’t have those factors, then you can knock down buildings and 10 years later, they will still be down. What we see in Southwest Louisiana is that we have a lot of human and social capital. We will rebuild fast.”
The effort will be hindered somewhat by cuts to McNeese, Sowela Technical Community College and state-operated Moss Regional Hospital. The belief among local leaders is that if the quality-of-life services provided by those three institutions are stalled, the recovery process will be too, to some extent.
Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach believes these barriers are just a few of many that should be met head-on. He is a longtime proponent of better public-policy decisions and infrastructure improvements that would help propel the region into a new position of economic and social strength that would also help protect the region during future disasters.
After he was sworn into office for another term earlier this year, Roach set out on an aggressive agenda focusing on regionalization, development along Lake Charles and annexation. The tragedy caused by Hurricane Rita is now regarded as an opportunity to build back stronger, smarter and for the long haul with regionalization as a focal point, using help from outside agencies. “Long-term economic strength in this area will require a real concerted effort, and it has to be done in concert with state and federal officials. I think we will look for assistance but in a way that we are a willing partner instead of just being a grantee,” Roach says.
Roach and other progressive thinkers, both in the business and political worlds, hope the goodwill shared among neighbors after the storm carries over into the recovery process. That, in essence, means the factors that have kept Southwest Louisiana from having a stronger political and economic presence on the state and national level will have to be addressed. Old-school politics, shortsighted planning and long-term turf wars have to be set aside.
“The success of our recovery effort depends on our ability to overcome demons within us. The same things that prevent us from having better infrastructure and more services – like competitiveness and parochialism – did not blow away with the storm. Our own limitations will be obstacles to long-term recovery if we are not careful,” Roach says. “Some people have said Katrina forced the state and New Orleans to deal with things it didn’t want to deal with. Rita has done the same thing for us. I think we are a great community, and we have a lot to be proud of. I just hope that the storm taught us the value of what we need to do long term.”
Cameron Parish administrator Tina Horn views insurance problems experienced by residents of the parish as barriers they have to overcome in order to start rebuilding. “Right now we have a big problem with the insurance companies settling. So many people are upset with their insurance companies,” she says.
Horn also believes regionalization should be embraced now more than ever. Without it, she thinks the area may not build back to pre-Rita conditions and will also fail to realize great expectations created out of the abundance of natural resources that lie within the Imperial Calcasieu region. “People like their independence, and they don’t want other parishes knowing what they are doing. But we need each other. The nation is into regionalism. We’ve got to get out of our thoughts of independence about everything. This storm proved it because we couldn’t wait for the businesses and restaurants to open in Calcasieu Parish. We depend on them and they depend on us, whether or not we admit it,” Horn says.
Swift’s task of attending countless meetings will be easier to swallow if the ears he speaks to in places such as DeRidder, DeQuincy, Sulphur, Jennings, Kinder, Creole and Lake Charles respect the idea of regionalism as a means to recovery. “Recovery here is now about a future that many people haven’t considered. This is a clean slate. We’re already getting back, but are we satisfied to get back to who and where we were, which is certainly a lot less than the potential we have? This is not just about increasing the population and numbers,” he says. “This is about a better quality of life than we had before the storm.”
Eric G. Cormier is a staff writer for the American Press in Lake Charles.