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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

On the Gulf Coast, a quiet hurricane season (so far!) brings little relief

A cross damaged by previous storms in Grand Chenier, La.

By Rick Rojas

In a community still etched with the scars of past storms that charged in from the Gulf of Mexico, the congregants at St. Pius X begin each service this time of year by petitioning God with the same solemn appeal: Please, spare us.

“We live in the shadow of a danger over which we have no control,” they say, repeating the prayer at every Mass from the start of hurricane season in June through the end in November. “The Gulf, like a provoked and angry giant, can awaken from its seeming lethargy, overstep its conventional boundaries, invade our land, and spread chaos and disaster.”

But so far this year, there has been no invasion. Any chaos and disaster are the residuals of devastating hurricanes that pummeled this stretch of the Louisiana coast two years ago.

It has been a hurricane season without hurricanes. But the quiet, however appreciated, does not bring much comfort.

“Who knows what next week holds?” said the Rev. Jeffrey Starkovich, the pastor at St. Pius X, a Catholic parish in Ragley, Louisiana, an unincorporated community about 20 miles north of Lake Charles. “You can’t rest. You can’t be confident it’s going to stay quiet.”

Last month was the first August in 25 years without a named storm in the Atlantic Ocean. No hurricanes have made landfall this year in the United States. And though hurricane season spans six months, it is this time of year — from late August through October — when the season typically packs its most powerful punch.

A weather system named Danielle strengthened last week into a Category 1 storm, becoming the first hurricane of the season; it weakened briefly to a tropical storm before regaining hurricane status. Entering the week, it cut a meandering path over the Atlantic and posed little threat to land.

In a part of the world where so many routines and rituals are shaped by the rhythms of hurricane season, the relative calm has done anything but inspire complacency. Instead, it has offered communities often in the path of hurricanes yet another vivid illustration of how capricious nature can be.

“We really don’t have any sighs of relief until hurricane season is completely over,” said Nic Hunter, the mayor of Lake Charles, a working class city in southwestern Louisiana still staggering its way back from a powerful pair of storms in 2020. “With all we’ve been through, I don’t think anyone wants to test fate.”

The very existence of this article and others like it is a source of considerable unease. Asked about hurricane season while she and a friend were outside working on a lawn mower last week, Ricki Lonidier pressed her finger to her lips and glared.

“Don’t speak it into existence!” her friend, Richelle Wiley, said.

But she knew their luck would last only so long. “We know it’s coming,” she said. “It’s inevitable.”

That evening, the humid air was thick with mosquitoes. She took it as a sign of brewing trouble.

Scientists still expect an “above normal” hurricane season this year, with 14 to 20 named storms and up to 10 of those strengthening into hurricanes. Last year, there were 21 named storms. The year before that set a record with 30.

On the Gulf Coast, hurricanes are more than just weather events. Their names — Audrey, Katrina, Rita, Ike, Laura — become chronological reference points for marking history. Chain-link fences are often referred to as hurricane fences, and for several years, a newspaper on the Texas coast called its weekly entertainment guide “cat5,” for a Category 5 hurricane, because, well, why not?

Like clockwork, around June, hurricane-themed public service announcements start filling commercial breaks on TV and radio and appearing on highway signs. It is time to start stockpiling water, canned goods and batteries. It is time to use up the food in the freezer so you will not have to toss out too much when a storm surely will knock out power.

Then, the anxiety sets in.

“It’s kind of like the proverbial sword of Damocles — it hangs over your head,” said Bishop Glen John Provost of the Diocese of Lake Charles, who leads worshippers through a “Mass to Avert the Storms” every year at the beginning of hurricane season. “The apprehension grows from the unknown.”

But in recent years, along this slice of the Louisiana coast, the tumult and torment of a hurricane have become far less abstract. A changing climate has intensified the threat, and powerful storms are likely to become more frequent.

In 2020, Hurricane Laura made landfall in Cameron Parish, south of Lake Charles, as a Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds — one of the most powerful storms to strike Louisiana. Roughly six weeks later, Hurricane Delta hit, cutting a nearly identical path. “What wasn’t taken out by Laura was finished by Delta,” Curtis Prejean said last week as he sat on his back porch with his wife, Shirley.

In the communities in and around Lake Charles, the recovery had been long and uneven. Curtis Prejean has a brother who has been living in a camper for two years. Wiley’s home had been stripped down to its studs inside and the outside was still battered. She is in a constant fight to fend off black mold.

The next storm could take what little some have left.

“We were talking about the hurricanes yesterday,” Wiley said, “and reality is stopping me, because I have nowhere to go. I’m about to be homeless.”

During one recent storm, the Prejeans put down a mattress pad in the hallway of the modest home where they have lived for 33 years and rode it out with two dogs and a cat. The house vibrated, and the noise was terrifying. “I told my husband we’re never doing that again,” Shirley Prejean said.

“I’m going to stay for a Cat. 1,” Curtis Prejean said. “A Cat. 2 …” He shrugged. That’s where he was unsure.

No matter the category, Curtis Goodwin — or as everyone knows him, Warrior War Dog — vowed to stay put. Blue tarps covered parts of his roof, and his exterior walls were still damaged. But he had fortified part of his house with the expectation that his family and dogs would pile inside.

“I’m going to stay right here, and I’m going to ride it out,” he said.

He knew what his cousin and her family had gone through when they left town in anticipation of Hurricane Laura. A few frightening hours at home were better than the weeks of frustration and turbulence that come with evacuating, he reasoned.

Katina Jackson, his cousin, was gone for several months. First, she fled her home in Lake Charles for San Antonio. On the way, the axle on her car broke. If it were not for a mechanic giving her a deal, her family would have been stranded. They stayed in hotels in San Antonio and Fort Worth, Texas, before going home.

The return of hurricane season dredged up all of that.

“It’s just going to be catastrophic again,” Jackson said outside her cousin’s house, helping her daughter take out her braids on a hot but otherwise pleasant evening. “I feel like it’s always quiet before the storm.”

A few minutes later, ominous clouds that had been lurking in the distance swarmed the neighborhood in darkness, and a surge of lightning ripped through the sky.

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