The `forgotten disaster’

Hurricane Laura made landfall Aug. 26 on Louisiana’s southwestern Gulf Coast with winds clocked as high as 150 mph and “unsurvivable” 15- to 20-foot storm surges that threatened to spread 30 miles inland. Two weeks later, it runs the risk of being consigned to the dungeon of “forgotten disasters.”

To Kathy Fulton, executive director of the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN) and a Louisiana native, the story fits an all-too-familiar pattern. The 24-hour news cycle moved on long ago. Laura’s death toll, as of three days ago, had reached 25 — devastating for the affected families but hardly rising to the “if it bleeds, it leads” mantra of the news business. The 2020 presidential election, in the eyes of many the most important in modern American history, has entered the home stretch. Racial unrest and violence captures daily headlines. A once-a-century pandemic continues to strafe the land, leaving death and economic hardship in its wake.

As Fulton, whose group connects logistics resources with disaster relief groups, reminded FreightWaves in an interview Wednesday, Laura did not hit big commerce centers like New Orleans or Houston. Oil refining, the main industry in the 60-mile stretch between Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Beaumont, Texas, came through relatively unscatched because Laura at the last moment veered to the east and away from the heart of the refinery network. National or regional supply chains were not impacted because the affected area was not a supply chain hub. Damaged water systems have mostly been repaired. Interstate 10, the region’s main thoroughfare, was cleared relatively quickly. Grocery stores and other retail establishments, for the most part, reopened within 48 hours after the storm had left the area and headed north.

As Fulton put it, Laura “was a disaster for individuals and local communities. It wasn’t a national catastrophe.”

Therein lies the irony, Fulton said. Laura was a force of nature when it made landfall, and it wreaked enormous havoc on the areas she came in contact with. Yet since the storm fell off the national media radar screen so quickly, it was no longer top of mind for the millions who might make cash donations to help relief groups perform what is, and will be for some time, critical recovery work. 

Not many storms stand the test of time. Names like Katrina, Sandy, Camille, Harvey and Andrew do burn in the public consciousness for years or even decades. Many, however, just burn out. Even the catastrophic 2009 earthquake in Haiti, which many regard as the worst natural disaster of the past 50 years because it laid waste to an already deeply-impoverished company, has largely faded from view. 

Without consistent media coverage, people move on, forget, and stop donating. In the case of Laura, without adequate funding, nonprofit organizations are wondering how long they can sustain people in the field without money to pay for food, lodging and other expenses, Fulton said. “We are not getting any press about this,” she said.

A parallel to Laura was Hurricane Rita, which hit the same area in 2005 less than a month after Hurricane Katrina hit. Katrina, a monster by any metric, received massive press coverage. Rita, like Laura, received relatively little attention because it arrived right on the heels of Katrina. Rita, unlike Laura, caused serious damage to the region’s energy infrastructure.

Laura was still packing heavy rain and very high winds when it reached Natchitoches, Louisiana, about 120 miles north of Lake Charles, where Fulton grew up and where her father and sister still live. Being so far inland, enduring even a scaled-down Laura’s fury was unprecedented for the both of them, Fulton said.

From a financial, physical and emotional perspective, it will take years to return the impacted Gulf area to normal, according to Fulton. Damages have been initially estimated at $8 to $12 billion. Homes and commercial structures were snapped like toothpicks. About 125,000 customers in the Lake Charles-Beaumont-Port Arthur corridor, as well as in Cameron Township which abuts the Gulf south of Lake Charles, remain without power. Five huge energy transmission lines sustained such severe damage that 800 flatbed deliveries have been made carrying needed repair equipment. More than 22,000 people are living in hotel rooms that have been turned into shelters. 

The weather, normally stifling this time of year in Louisiana and Texas, isn’t helping. Temperatures have been in the low 90s with near 70% humidity day after day.

Though the unprecedented storm surges never materialized, Laura did spawn an 18-foot crest in very isolated pockets, Fulton said, based on intelligence she received from one of her sources at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).

The novel coronavirus has not gone away, though the decision by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to rent thousands of hotel rooms in 45 locations across Louisiana and Texas has allowed folks to social distance and remain safe under the circumstances. Under normal conditions, people would be clustered in school gymnasiums or similar structures, Fulton said.

For now, ALAN is coordinating the movements of heavy tarps, boxes and other supplies that will help families and communities get back on their feet. Fulton’s best friend, who lives in Lake Charles, miraculously sustained very minor damage to her home, Fulton said. She remembers crying tears of relief and happiness that her friend was one of the lucky ones.