Storm after storm after storm seems to head right for the small Louisiana town where I was born. In late August, Hurricane Laura hit Lake Charles hard. Over the weekend, many homes were again flooded after Hurricane Delta rolled through. Years ago, a powerful hurricane pushed my family into Lake Charles, and later, another pushed us out.
Each time I hear about a new hurricane stirring in the Gulf, taunting the state where my story began, there’s always a part of my chest that tightens. The hurricane season is a reminder to me that natural disasters are disruptive and unrelenting, displacing swaths of people and threatening the roots they had firmly established.
My memories of Hurricane Katrina and Rita in 2005 are pretty muddled. However, there are things I will never forget: hours on the road that seemed endless, relatives packed into houses, and television news being the soundtrack to the hurricane season.
I remember living with my aunt and her family in Lake Charles for close to a month after my school in Mandeville, La., about 35 miles north of New Orleans, was closed after Katrina devastated the state. But my days at the new school were numbered as Hurricane Rita headed for Lake Charles. Our family returned to our home in Mandeville, which had been largely spared from Katrina.
It’s those faint memories that wash over me years later as Lake Charles, the city that remains home to many of my loved ones, has been battered again and again by unforgiving — and increasingly destructive — storms.
This past summer, my aunt and uncle, like thousands of other Lake Charles residents, left in advance of hurricanes, only to return to a devastated city.
My aunt, Eunice Boutte (Aunt Mimi to me), is no stranger to hurricanes. The first one she remembers living through was Hurricane Audrey in 1957. She was just a little girl living in Lake Charles, and my mother hadn’t been born yet. At least 500 deaths were attributed to Audrey, according to the National Weather Service. My grandfather, James Parker, helped recover the bodies of some of the people who perished in floodwaters near Cameron, La.
Fast forward to 2005, to Hurricane Rita. My aunt was director of nurses for a nursing home in Dequincy, La., and was tasked with evacuating patients before that storm.
“At that time I had no experience with evacuating a facility for a common disaster such as a hurricane, but God gave me wisdom and ideas to do things that ended up helping,” she said.
As her daughters and husband evacuated to Mandeville with my parents and me, she was left responsible for others’ loved ones.
“All of us who evacuated left our families,” she said about the nursing staff she led. “We had our huddle with each other, and we cried and didn’t know what was going to happen to our house. We were away from our loved ones, and it was sad, but we managed to get through it.”
Fortunately, Rita spared her home, although the same couldn’t be said for the surrounding neighborhoods.
“It was like somebody had bombed Lake Charles,” she said.
Over the years, the city rebuilt, businesses again sprouted and families reunited, but Hurricane Laura gave it all a forceful punch in August. Compared to 2005, the destruction was “a lot worse,” my aunt said.
Trees collapsed onto homes, utility lines crowded streets, and stores and businesses I remember from when I was a kid looked as if the life had been sucked out of them, their windows battered and everything inside strewn about.
A tree fell on my aunt’s house. It is likely she’s going to need a new roof, and parts of her home will need to be gutted.
Repairs are set to begin soon, but there’s an eerie sense of limbo, with still another month left in what has become a record-breaking hurricane season. While the tree has been removed, and her home partly covered in blue tarp, she doesn’t yet know whether the damages caused by Hurricane Delta will delay those repairs. For now, she’s settled with my parents and me in Conroe, Texas — about 40 miles outside Houston.
That sense of dislocation, and the weight of hurricanes — on my family and many others in the South — has only become more potent over the years. Natural disasters mark noticeable chapters in our lives.
When we moved to Mandeville in 2003, my family’s plan was to put down roots. But Katrina changed that. That year, 2005, my father’s job was about a 40-minute commute to New Orleans. He worked as an accountant for what was then Dominion Exploration and Production. His office was located in what is known today as Benson Tower, near the Superdome. But after Katrina ravaged the city, his company relocated their offices to Houston, where they already had established operations.
For the rest of that year, and for some of 2006, my dad lived alone in an apartment while my mom and I remained in Mandeville so that I could finish the school year. The summer after Katrina, we moved to a Houston suburb to be with my father.
Looking back now, it’s undeniable the privilege I had compared to so many other children during that time. I was in a constant bubble of safety, bouncing from one home to another, and under the care of parents who had the financial means to recuperate from the storm.
And I was so young that I don’t think I knew having to move because of a storm wasn’t the norm. Hurricanes, and moving because of them, just seemed like a fact of life. I think the most frightening thing to me at the time was moving to a place where I didn’t have any friends.
If it hadn’t been for the 2005 hurricane season, my family and I would have likely remained in Louisiana. Today, I like to think of myself as equal part Texan, equal part Louisianian. There isn’t a year that’s gone by where I don’t visit family in Louisiana.
And still, hurricanes have continued to be a common thread in my life. After Katrina and Rita, there was Ike in 2008 and Harvey in 2017. We made it through both safely.
Over the years, we’ve had relatives flee storms and take refuge with us in Houston. Sometimes they return to intact homes and resume their lives. But as hurricanes continue to grow stronger, I hold my breath for what the future might hold.