My World's on Fire

By Colleen Hagerty

#HelpLakeCharles

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My World's on Fire
#HelpLakeCharles
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #17 • View online

“My World’s on Fire” is a free newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. My goal is to help you feel a bit more at ease about our unpredictable world by equipping you with in-depth reporting and insights around policy, preparation, response, and resiliency. I can only do that with your continued support, so please subscribe and share!
Twitter is what Kathryn Shea Duncan credits with bringing her to Lake Charles, Louisiana. She used the platform to connect with her now-boss, which helped her get her “dream job” in an area she describes as offering “world class living with natural beauty,” not to mention “probably the best food in the country.”
Full disclosure: that “dream job” is with Visit Lake Charles, so Kathryn is definitely a bit biased. But she’s also a photographer, and her effusive words about the city are backed up with a cache of Instagram images documenting watercolor sunsets, historic homes, and displays of indulgent food.
A few weeks back, about a year after making the move to Lake Charles, Kathryn packed up her belongings to transition from an apartment into a new home downtown.
She got to spend two nights there.
“I had almost started hanging things on the walls; pretty much unpacked everything,” she told me by phone.
Then, the texts from family and friends started pouring in, urging her to evacuate – a hurricane was coming. So, she repacked some of her belongings, drove about an hour to her childhood home, and there, she waited.
That night, Hurricane Laura brought heavy rain, whipping 150-mph winds, and a 15-foot-high storm surge to Louisiana. The Category 4 storm made landfall just south of Lake Charles.
When Kathryn drove back to see the damage the next day, she found entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble. A tree across the street from her house, planted under cement, had been toppled, revealing its previously buried roots. And the area remained dangerous – a chemical plant was on fire, and downed power lines were scattered through the streets.
It had been an undeniably powerful hurricane, one of the strongest ever to hit the United States, and to Kathryn, its impact reflected that.
But, she felt, much of the national news coverage didn’t.
Early reports from national outlets noted that the damage could have been worse, including quotes from the governors of Louisiana and Texas to that effect:
“It is clear that we did not sustain and suffer the absolute, catastrophic damage that we thought was likely,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said. “But we we have sustained a tremendous amount of damage,” he said.
On the phone, Kathryn said something quite similar to me, acknowledging her own “luck” in only sustaining “moderate damage to the exterior of my house,” but also bristling at the framing that the storm “spared” residents without acknowledging the extent of the wreckage it did cause. Damage in Louisiana is estimated to be in the double-digit billions. A week after the storm, more than one hundred thousand people in the state were still without electricity. A heat wave lingered in the area, leaving those who remained reliant on generators to make it through the 100-plus degree days. Multiple people died in the days after the storm due to generator fumes.
Many, including Kathryn, have yet to return, staying with family or friends, or living out of hotel rooms provided by aid agencies (though those accommodations have been in short supply).
“I forget what assistance form I was filling out last night, but I had to click that I was homeless,” Kathryn said. “Most of us will be homeless for at least three weeks, and a lot of people who had a total loss and total devastation, they won’t move back to Lake Charles for months.”
So, when she saw headlines claiming the area “dodged a bullet,” she was upset. She felt like the wrong narrative was being told – when it was being told at all.
Clark Miller, a friend of Kathryn’s and resident of Sulphur, a town neighboring Lake Charles, felt a similar frustration. He waited out the storm at his girlfriend’s place in Baton Rouge, going back the next day to survey the damage to his home – hit by a tree, with water damage – and his neighborhood. When he tried to talk about what he saw with his girlfriend’s roommate back in Baton Rouge, he was shocked to realize the news of “just how catastrophic the damage is” hadn’t made it there.
“And so that’s why I decided to go ahead and start the hashtag to help Lake Charles,” he explained by phone. “Just to get everyone to rally around one hashtag in order to get it trending and viral so we get, hopefully, noticed.”
Clark Miller
The news media is leaving us hanging here in Lake Charles after Hurricane Laura.

Cries for help are falling on deaf ears.

I want to organize a mass post tonight at 8:30 PM CST. Post pictures using the hashtags #helplakecharles #helplouisiana

Retweet and spread the word.
Tweets tagged with #HelpLakeCharles ended up receiving tens of thousands of retweets. As it started trending, Clark and Kathryn fielded numerous press requests from outlets including Good Morning America. Both are continuing to track Lake Charles coverage on social media, a list that now includes most major television networks, newspapers, and magazines from People to Southern Living.
With that attention came an influx of aid. 
“People from around the country are now paying attention, or are asking how they can help,” Clark said. “In fact, I even heard of a couple from Seattle. They’re literally just driving here with a trailer, and they’re gathering as many supplies and donations as they can on the way here. And they wouldn’t have heard about it if it wasn’t for #HelpLakeCharles.”
For Kathryn, this was another example of the power of Twitter. “People can look at millennials all they want and Gen Z’s and be like, ‘Oh, you’re on social media too much, you put too much weight into social media,’ but that was successful.”
Of course, there’s nothing new about communities impacted by disaster reaching out for help, or even promoting their needs on social media. I’ve previously written about the now-ubiquitous, often large-scale Facebook groups that are formed following disasters and the ways they attempt to fill the cracks left by traditional aid response. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the derecho in Iowa and mentioned the push from locals there to keep their stories in the news, even adding my own encouragement.
Still, seeing this coordinated effort to go viral facilitated by displaced residents, many of whom were sharing their own painful experiences in an appeal to be acknowledged, made me take a step back. Because a community reckoning with loss in extreme heat during a pandemic shouldn’t have to run its own social media campaign to receive the aid it needs.
I’ve since spoken to multiple other Lake Charles residents about why they thought it was important to get their city trending and raise awareness on a national scale. All were emphatic about the incredible outpouring of support within their own community, but they also told me that this was all more than they could handle on their own. One resident still in Lake Charles, Shonell Bacon, shared an open letter with me that she’s distributing to journalists.
“We cannot wait for FEMA or the Red Cross or the current administration to help us because, quite frankly, a lot of us don’t believe we will see help from them,” she wrote in part. She’s already been denied housing assistance from FEMA and for a Small Business Administration disaster loan; she’s still waiting to hear from the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and insurance. She says she’s aware the Red Cross is in the area, but “there hasn’t been the presence I’ve seen in other disasters, such as Rita.”
Bacon has, however, heard from her neighbors. She wrote about a “sassy, sweet new friend” who helped her get a tarp up on her ceiling. The “wonderful people” who gave her family money to get a generator. The stranger at a gas station who handed her his pump, telling her he lost his home but was grateful to have family to stay with while she filled her cans.
“I can’t even count the number of people who are going through [it] yet still rise up to lift up others,” she told me.
And so, she was appealing to the national media because she believes that there are more people out there who do want to help, but, “People cannot help if they do not know.”
Shonell Bacon
North Lake Charles, Louisiana - - SOOO many houses in this area, an area with a large minority population, look as if Laura had some supernatural machete and clean sliced roofs from homes. Utter devastation. Gut-wrenching to witness. https://t.co/odAustW1d2
Shonell is right – people do want to help. We know this from studying previous disasters. It’s the basis of Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, which looks at the “disaster utopias” created by communities after crises, when “the old order no longer exists” and mutual aid flourishes. It’s why FEMA has previously called volunteers the “backbone of recovery.”
That’s the good news.
But today, that backbone is being pulled, vertebrae by vertebrae, in different directions. Pretty much every time I write this newsletter, I fight the urge to add a disclaimer acknowledging all the other natural hazards going on (as you might notice, sometimes that fight fails). For all I’ve written about Hurricane Laura here, I’ve mentioned just two cities of the multiple ones that were affected in Louisiana and Texas, not to mention its devastating impact in Haiti. The success of Lake Charles’ social media campaign required cell service/WiFi, device access, and social media savvy, a combination that might not exist in some of those areas, or in some of the ones threatened by wildfires in the West today.
When I reported on disaster Facebook groups, I was left feeling torn, buoyed by the promise of how individuals are trying to use social media to change the way we respond to disasters and disappointed by the lack of action social media platforms and institutional agencies have taken to really harness that opportunity. I’m always overwhelmed by the dedication of some officials, reporters, volunteers, and organizers to go above and beyond, but they’re often operating within a patchwork of bureaucratic systems.
I’m currently working on an article about how this year could change the way we as a society view disasters, and clearly, that’s weighing on my mind as I write this newsletter. So, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these topics, and whether this year has changed your perspective in any way. Leave a comment here to start a conversation, find me on Twitter, or reply to this email to speak with me directly. 
September is National Preparedness Month
To mark National Preparedness Month, I’m including an emergency preparedness tip in each September edition, courtesy of my “Doomsday Pupper” Instagram account. I’d love to hear if you find this feature helpful, and if it’s something you’d like to see continued!
And, as always…
thank you for being a part of this community. If you found today’s dispatch interesting, please consider sharing it and spreading the word on social media.
Here’s a little something for reading to the end.
Colleen
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Colleen Hagerty

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