Hurricane Laura damage #1

Utility poles felled by Hurricane Laura block traffic in Lake Charles on Aug. 28, 2020.

(The Center Square) – Legislators from southwest Louisiana are imploring state and federal lawmakers to remember still-devastated rural communities from last hurricane season as they now consider Hurricane Ida recovery aid.

Louisiana’s southwest region was first damaged by Hurricane Laura more than a year ago. The Category 4 hurricane was followed by three separate declared natural disasters, which interrupted power restoration, housing and critical relief efforts for months.

Many areas remain devastated despite numerous intervening appeals for federal supplemental aid, lawmakers said. That changed earlier this month, however, when President Joe Biden authorized supplemental funding in conjunction with Hurricane Ida disaster relief after the storm hit New Orleans and many southeastern parishes, then continued as far north as New York City.

While approved, it’s unclear when the funding will make it to long-suffering rural communities as the federal aid depends on congressional budget negotiations.

“I think the silver lining is that Ida also got the northeast and that probably got everybody’s attention,” state Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, told elected officials from southwestern communities Monday during a joint committee meeting at the state Capitol. “Without the damage there, we might be in the same boat. It seems maybe that helped out both your area and my area that Ida continued to cause problems across the United States.”

State Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, and state Rep. Ryan Bourriaque, R-Abbeville, offered sobering assessments of southwestern communities they contend have been left behind.

“I just want to remind the state as a whole that the frustration you feel with no connectivity through the storm (Hurricane Ida), rural Louisiana feels every day,” Mizell said. “We’re in the aftermath of a disaster all the time. I want to drive that point home.”

Bourriaque recounted how Hurricane Laura devastated lower Cameron Parish, saying electricity failed to be restored until Thanksgiving week, or nearly three months after the hurricane’s Aug. 27 landfall.

“Schools have been slow to recover,” Bourriaque said. “No church has been restored in lower Cameron Parish of any denomination.”

Bourriaque said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) failed to resolve the area’s housing crisis. Requests for temporary housing trailers were submitted in September and October of last year, he said.

“FEMA approved the requests on April 28 of this year,” said Bourriaque. “It’s not a question of eligibility.”

Bourriaque added that FEMA’s substantial damage estimations, which are required for National Flood Insurance Program coverage, occurred three months after Hurricane Laura and showed half of all business and residential structures in lower Cameron Parish were at least 50% damaged.

One third of the damaged structures were 100% destroyed, Bourriaque said.

“Our colleagues in the southeast are going to learn all too well,” he said.

Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter began his public testimony with the assertion that communities in southwest Louisiana have been impacted by natural disasters more than any other area in the country over the past year.

After Hurricane Laura, Hurricane Delta slammed into the southwest region – a record-tying fourth named storm to hit Louisiana last year. Delta was followed by a “once-a-generation” winter storm, Hunter said, which was followed by severe flooding in May.

“It’s hard for me to talk about some of these things,” Hunter said before reading a list of current Lake Charlies statistics, which included a 14% decline in public school enrollment, 45% increase in drug overdose deaths, 47% increase in unpaid property taxes and 833% increase in blight properties.

When asked why supplemental aid never arrived, Hunter blamed politics in Washington.

“It’s a pathetic answer,” he said.

Hunter acknowledged that Lake Charles and neighboring communities wouldn’t have been approved for supplemental funding by the Biden administration but for the damage caused by Hurricane Ida. While expressing gratitude, he said “the devil will be in the details.”

“Southwest Louisiana needs help,” Hunter said. “I ask that southwest Louisiana not be forgotten.”

During Monday's legislative committee meeting, Gov. John Bel Edwards was in Washington with Louisiana's congressional delegation urging federal lawmakers to expedite hurricane relief funding. 

Staff Reporter

William Patrick is a regional reporter for The Center Square currently covering Louisiana. He previously covered the Florida Legislature and has a background in investigative journalism. William’s work has been widely published over his 10-year career.