• Wed. Oct 28th, 2020

Trump Visits Storm-Ravaged Lake Charles, a Louisiana City Still Without Power

Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times

LAKE CHARLES, La. — Days after Hurricane Laura slammed into Louisiana, hundreds of thousands of people remained without electricity on 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 Trump arrived on Saturday afternoon in the troubled city, where residents were just beginning to pick up the pieces after the hurricane that made landfall on Thursday as a Category 4 storm.

“Our hearts go out to the families that have lost loved ones,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 on 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?” Ms. Staves asked. “What am I supposed to eat? I have nothing.”

The efforts to dig into a cleanup were stalled by heavy rain on 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 the 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.

The city’s largest hospital, Lake Charles Memorial Hospital Health System, whose phone lines were down, had to evacuate all patients to other hospitals and was operating only its emergency room. The hospital said on its website that pregnant mothers should leave the area because the hospital was not providing obstetric services except in emergencies.

The power failure in Lake Charles could continue for weeks, the mayor said, and people have been racing to buy more gasoline to provide power to their homes.

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 Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Geymann, who has let about five people stay with him after their homes were destroyed.

Credit…Alex Brandon/Associated Press

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,” Mr. 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 Mr. Green, 63.

“You never get used to it,” he said. “It is just a nightmare happening all over again.”

The extensive wind damage posed a new set of challenges to the volunteer crews that routinely mobilize after hurricanes. They are well practiced in storms whose wrath is delivered by water, but Hurricane Laura was like a giant weed whacker, eviscerating trees, buildings and signs.

In one area, a pile of downed trees was impossible to clear, so rescuers had to hike through the woods to reach homes. One of the rescuers, Belton O’Neall, said that he found a 78-year-old woman who uses a wheelchair stuck in a mobile home where the roof had been shaved off.

“They’re out of food, out of water, out of power,” said Mr. O’Neall, who came from Greenville, S.C.

Parked along a street downtown, Darryn Melerine and Matthew Monson, of Mandeville, La., handed out bottles of cold water they had hauled from their homes about three hours away. Mr. Melerine lost his house to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and he said that experience pulled him toward Lake Charles on Saturday.

Mr. Monson said he felt a sense of “survivor’s guilt” when his own community was mostly spared by Hurricane Laura, he said. “We’re not coming home with this water, I don’t care if we have to stay till midnight.”

Visiting Orange, Texas, Mr. 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, Mr. Trump said it was important to visit Louisiana because it had been “a tremendous state for me.” He won the state with 58 percent 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,” Mr. Trump said.

He struck a reassuring note with Mr. Hunter, the mayor, saying, “You took a big punch, but you’ll be back.”

Will Wright and Rick Rojas reported from Lake Charles, La., and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs from Edisto Island, S.C. Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio contributed reporting from Boston and Peter Baker from Washington.