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Story Publication logo March 22, 2021

Field Notes: How We Reported Our Series on Hurricane Laura Recovery

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Residents of southwest Louisiana are all too familiar with life-altering storms. Now, they must...

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Carly Berlin, wearing a mask, stands and writes in a notebook.
Carly Berlin on assignment in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Image by Katie Sikora. United States.

A month before last year’s record-breaking hurricane season began, I interviewed emergency managers in counties along the Gulf Coast about their preparations during the pandemic. Many told me about the logistical and financial hurdles of creating a shelter system that kept people separate enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “We have to plan for a [Hurricane] Katrina in the middle of COVID-19,” Malary White, a spokesperson for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, told me.

As Hurricane Laura approached the Louisiana coast in late August, I checked the radar obsessively from my home in New Orleans. It rode in, rapidly intensifying, on the back of tropical storm Marco. I wondered if I should gather the plants from my porch, board up the windows, and move my car to higher ground to wait it out, but worried I’d be stuck in the sweltering heat without power. I considered evacuating. But would there be time to get a COVID-19 test before staying with my high-risk parents in Atlanta? Would testing centers be open? How bad would the storm be? If I left, how long might it be until I could return?

The hurricane veered west, away from New Orleans. The National Weather Service predicted an “unsurvivable” storm surge near the Louisiana-Texas state line, and national media converged, anticipating the sort of highly visible human suffering of Katrina. Laura made landfall in Cameron, La., in the westernmost corner of the state, with 150 mile-per-hour winds — the most intense hurricane to hit Louisiana in over a century. 

That “unsurvivable” storm surge didn’t quite materialize, but Laura still caused massive destruction. Residents of Lake Charles, 50 miles inland from Cameron, later described it to me as seeing multiple tornadoes rip through the city. Yet within days, national outlets dropped the story. Much of southwest Louisiana is considered a news desert: Cameron Parish has a weekly publication, and Lake Charles’ American Press has limited circulation. After the storm, both national and local reporting fell away, even with chemical releases from industrial plants, a blistering heat wave, and a spike in carbon monoxide poisonings.

I knew there was deeper reporting to be done on the compounding crises of COVID-19 and hurricane recovery in southwest Louisiana, and my position at Southerly lent itself to start that work. I received a grant from the Pulitzer Center to support a three-part series over six months, which covered photography by New Orleans photographer Katie Sikora, as well as travel expenses. These stories were republished by Louisiana Illuminator and The Current in Lafayette, and one was co-published with The Hechinger Report. We created several resource guides to help share accurate information, and we’re hosting a virtual event on March 23.  

Without consistent reporting, environmental, racial, and economic injustices in southwest Louisiana remain under-covered. The lack of attention slows funding and government aid. Residents don’t have critical information that can keep them safe and healthy, and can’t see themselves represented in news coverage. They risk feeling all the more isolated navigating a crisis during a pandemic that has forced us to stay apart. 

Two people sit socially distanced at picnic tables in a covered patio in a park.
Carly Berlin interviews Lisa Morgan, a teacher displaced by the hurricanes. Image by Katie Sikora. United States.

I started reporting on Hurricane Laura the day after the storm hit. I headed to downtown New Orleans to interview a few of the thousands of southwest Louisiana evacuees the state was putting up at hotels. One family I spoke to recalled staying at a packed shelter after Rita in 2005, and appreciated that the state had changed course. Still, they worried about contracting COVID-19 and had no sense of when they would be able to go home.

Officials were uncertain about the timeline, as well. “New Orleans is really never considered a receiving city for evacuees because we ourselves continue to be in a danger zone if another storm were to come,” Lauren Mellem, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, told me. 

More storms did come: The Atlantic hurricane season produced 30 named storms, five of which came ashore in Louisiana. Hurricane Sally brought historic floods to coastal Alabama and the Florida Panhandle in September. Tropical Storm Beta inundated Galveston days later. Hurricane Zeta slammed New Orleans days before the presidential election, knocking out power across the Deep South. The wind sucked out a windowpane in my bedroom; my partner and I scrambled to patch it with cardboard lined with trash bags to keep the rain out. 

Just six weeks after Laura, Hurricane Delta hit southwest Louisiana. Residents wrote on Facebook that they’d run out of savings evacuating for Laura and now had few options. Delta brought torrents of rain to homes with blue tarps for roofs, open to the sky. Lake Charles residents told me that Delta finished what Laura started. Tasha Guidry, a voter education activist and co-founder of Lake Charles Black Business Owners, offered to give Katie and me a lay of the land when we visited about a week after Delta hit in mid-October to report on how the hurricanes impacted early voting access for our first story in the series. Guidry drove us through north and central Lake Charles — predominantly Black neighborhoods, where she grew up and still lives — and pointed out the downed power lines and piles of debris lining the roads. Many homes appeared destroyed and abandoned. Then she drove us to south Lake Charles, which is mostly white. The streets were relatively clear; construction on homes and businesses was well underway. 

The two hurricanes damaged about half of the housing stock in Calcasieu Parish, where Lake Charles is. Over a quarter of all housing units were considered non-livable, according to a community foundation’s report. People seeking to return home faced steep barriers: Homeowners had to wrangle insurance adjusters and find reliable contractors, and renters had to put all their trust in landlords to fix up buildings. Many landlords evicted tenants and raised rent well beyond affordability. There was nowhere to live.

As we drove, Guidry said she was concerned that thousands of her displaced neighbors wouldn’t be able to travel back home to vote, or couldn’t procure an absentee ballot as they moved from hotel to hotel. We published a story on the challenges facing Black voters in Lake Charles prior to the November election.

Then, I turned to schools. The lack of housing was keeping students and teachers from returning. In December, Teri Johnson, president of the Calcasieu Federation of Teachers and School Employees, told me that 150 of her 1300 union members had quit since the summer. Rentals were difficult to find, and teachers took jobs elsewhere. Calcasieu Parish schools reopened last fall and teachers were asked to return. For Lisa Morgan, a teacher at LaGrange High School in Lake Charles, that meant driving over an hour each way to and from Lafayette, where she was staying with a cousin since the hurricanes destroyed her rental. Many of her students at the predominantly Black school were scattered across Louisiana and Texas, effectively homeless.

As I reported in December, teachers are mental health responders, especially in times of crisis — even as they are dealing with their own trauma. Many teachers in southwest Louisiana told me about the struggles of juggling in person and virtual teaching as they worked to repair their homes or find places to rent closer to their work. 

The last story in our series focused on renters and the hurdles they faced trying to secure stable housing in Lake Charles. Hailey Barnett, an attorney at a legal aid clinic in the city, described the many ways landlords bypassed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s pandemic eviction moratorium and put people on the curb, then increased the rent. She saw clients get approved for an initial round of rental assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and then struggle to secure continued assistance after Delta hit. 

To hear from renters directly, Southerly made a tip form asking them to share their stories; we received a slew of responses. One was from Sasha Miller, a personal care attendant at a center for seniors and people with disabilities in Lake Charles. Miller and her five-year-old daughter were evicted from her apartment after Hurricane Laura, and called FEMA repeatedly to get additional assistance without clear responses. She spent weeks sleeping in her car and in a tent. 

There were untold numbers of people becoming unhoused as a result of the hurricanes. Officials opted not to tally unhoused people across Louisiana in 2021 because of COVID-19. That means no one has a sense of scale of the issue — and that people like Miller are slipping through the cracks.

FEMA is part of the problem too. I spoke at length with Gerard Hammink, a FEMA representative in Lake Charles about why the agency was taking so long to respond to Miller and others about the status of their aid applications. He couldn’t give a direct answer and didn’t connect me with another agency official who might’ve. He said FEMA processes “can create confusion for the applicants, but also for even those of us who work in FEMA.” He added, “I really feel for people who are trying to navigate through that.”

Meanwhile, for many like Miller, a different kind of storm rages on. She told me about the toll the hurricanes and pandemic had taken on her mental health. She already struggled with depression and anxiety, and the circumstances made both worse. She felt numb navigating the bureaucracy needed to put her life back together; it was hard to get up in the morning, to go to work and take her daughter to school. At one point, she called a suicide crisis hotline. “It helped,” she told me. “They reminded me of things that I need to be reminded of. That I have a daughter to take care of.”

The story ran in mid-February, the week of a winter storm that brought freezing temperatures and snow. Lake Charles’ water infrastructure failed, leaving thousands without water for days—just as it had after the hurricanes. The winter storm became the fourth federally-declared disaster in the area in a year. I checked in with local officials and community groups, who mobilized to shelter unhoused people during the freeze. Miller let me know she was safe and warm in the trailer she now shares with 12 people. 

In the coming months, I will continue reporting on hurricane recovery in southwest Louisiana. The last story in our series circulated among Louisiana housing advocates and government officials, including within FEMA. A representative from the New Orleans office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asked to help connect Miller with services. I’ll be keeping tabs on the ongoing housing crisis — how it is addressed in Calcasieu Parish’s long-term recovery framework, and who has been impacted most by it, once state and federal agencies release public records.

Now, another hurricane season is nearly upon us. Earlier this month, a FEMA spokesperson told the American Press that the agency would not be able to provide temporary housing for all Hurricane Laura survivors who need it until September or October — over a year after the storm. In response, Lake Charles mayor Nic Hunter sent a letter to the agency, calling the temporary housing plan “a complete, wrenching disappointment.”

“It is with a heavy heart that I use such blunt language, because it means that our federal government has let down the people of Lake Charles and Southwest Louisiana,” Hunter’s letter reads. “It seems with Hurricane Laura, FEMA has experienced a regression in effectiveness.”

Not only has FEMA lagged in providing critical aid, but elected officials have failed to maintain a sense of urgency about hurricane recovery. “Our people are being let down by state and federal elected officials. No federal hearings have been demanded or held, and the only state hearing has been focused on private insurance woes,” Bill Quigley, a civil rights attorney and professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, told me in February. “This demands a structural response from all levels of government and it hasn’t received it.”

As I prepare to re-enter the cycle, I feel a wave of anxiety. I think about the residents of southwest Louisiana who haven’t caught a break this last relentless year. Climate change will bring with it more disasters like these, and disasters will bring greater and greater stretches to our mental health. 

Ashley Shelton, the executive director of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, told me something at the beginning of my reporting that has stuck with me ever since: “People always talk about how resilient the people of Louisiana are,” she said. “The reality is, resilience is about expanding your capacity for a short period of time until the problem can be fixed, right? So your community can be rebuilt after a hurricane. But if you never really fix the problem, then it’s actually just oppression.”

Carly Berlin is Southerly’s Gulf Coast correspondent.

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