Trump visits storm-ravaged Lake Charles, a Louisiana city still without power
By Will Wright, Rick Rojas and Nicholas Boger-Burroughs
Days after Hurricane Laura slammed into Louisiana, hundreds of thousands of people remained without electricity Saturday, with the situation especially dire in Lake Charles, a city near the coastline where nearly all 80,000 residents have been without power for days and many have no running water.
President Donald Trump arrived Saturday afternoon in the troubled city, where residents were just beginning to pick up the pieces after the hurricane that made landfall Thursday as a Category 4 storm.
“Our hearts go out to the families that have lost loved ones,” Trump said during a stop in Lake Charles, expressing relief that the death toll was not higher. “It’s a tremendous number, but it could have been a lot worse.”
But both Trump and the residents who were returning to their homes arrived in a city still packed with perils, where the streets were obstacle courses filled with tangled power lines, fallen trees and debris from rooftops.
“We have water in some locations, but it’s a trickle,” Mayor Nic Hunter said in a telephone interview shortly before Trump’s visit, describing an overwhelmed water system that, combined with the near-total electricity failure, has left the city foundering in the summer heat.
Sandra Staves, who works as a housekeeper at a hospital, returned to her home for the first time Saturday. Her roof was torn apart, the windows were broken, and water had soaked her furniture and mattress. The power was out and no water ran from the tap. She looked in the refrigerator to find that all of her food had spoiled.
“What am I supposed to do?” Staves asked. “What am I supposed to eat? I have nothing.”
The efforts to dig into a cleanup were stalled by heavy rain Saturday afternoon, adding yet another layer of frustration.
“It’s literally like kids and parents and families picking up pieces,” said Layla Winbush, 19, whose family-owned car detail shop was wrecked by the storm. “It’s locals out here on hands and knees.”
The extended electrical outages have turned deadly, as the majority of the state’s deaths have come from people who were overcome by fumes after using generators to power refrigerators, lights and air conditioners.
At least seven people have been killed by carbon monoxide from generators, including four members of a family found dead in a home in Lake Charles. A fifth member of that family was taken to a hospital. Their generator was located in a garage and the deadly gas was able to seep into the house through a door that was left cracked open, the mayor said.
Another man in Calcasieu Parish, which includes Lake Charles, died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator, as did an 84-year-old man and an 80-year-old woman in the same home in Allen Parish, to the northeast, said health officials, who warned people never to place generators in homes or in closed garages.
In addition to the deaths tied to generators, five other people have died in Louisiana, four from falling trees and one from drowning. In Texas, where Trump headed next, at least four deaths have been tied to carbon monoxide poisoning from generators.
“This is just way, way worse than Rita,” said Brett Geymann, 58, a former Louisiana state lawmaker who lives in Moss Bluff, a suburb of Lake Charles, referring to the powerful hurricane that struck the area in 2005.
Geymann said residents were increasingly worried about the lack of water as they contemplated not having flushable toilets or being able to wash their hands in a sink, particularly during the pandemic.
The virus is “not even an issue anymore for most people,” said Geymann, who has let about five people stay with him after their homes were destroyed.
Patrick Goodwill, 50, rode out the storm in Lake Charles. When he walked out of his house the next morning, he found his carport had been flattened and shingles from his roof carpeted the yard. His dog, Lucas, was missing. He still is.
“Thank God we didn’t get the water, but the wind — Jesus,” Goodwill said. “That did it.”
In the community of Westlake, a town just outside Lake Charles that was eviscerated by the storm, George Green sat on his front porch, looking out at a pecan tree that had been uprooted and smashed into his daughter’s car.
His house had been damaged by Hurricane Rita and three years later, in 2008, by Hurricane Ike, which sent a foot of water flowing through his house. “Ike didn’t even knock,” said Green, 63.
“You never get used to it,” he said. “It is just a nightmare happening all over again.”
Visiting Orange, Texas, Trump said the state had been “a little bit lucky” to avoid a direct hit from the hurricane. While he had “never seen anything quite like” what Louisiana had endured, he said, both states had managed to escape a worst-case scenario.
In his earlier meeting with John Bel Edwards, Louisiana’s Democratic governor, and several other officials, Trump said it was important to visit Louisiana because it had been “a tremendous state for me.” He won the state with 58% of the vote in 2016 and won an even higher percentage of voters in Calcasieu Parish.
Even as residents turned to clean up their homes, some found time to show their support, with Trump 2020 signs put up after the storm and a Make America Great Again sign planted in a mound of debris.
The president noted that the hurricane had made landfall as a more powerful storm than Hurricane Katrina, which hit the region 15 years ago this weekend and caused catastrophic devastation.
“Here we are today and you’re going to have this situation taken care of very, very quickly,” Trump said.
He struck a reassuring note with Hunter, the mayor, saying, “You took a big punch, but you’ll be back.”