, New York City
, Lake Tahoe
. Each of these areas, widely known and beloved by residents and tourists alike, has been in the headlines this week due to disasters threatening their infrastructure and communities. The images coming out of these regions are gutting, surreal, and hard to look away from.
But they’re also not the entire story.
Hurricane Ida and the Caldor Fire, both intensified by climate change, have broad footprints, impacting many small towns that lack national name recognition but now desperately need outside support – Galliano
, Grizzly Flats
, to name a few.
It’s a situation Nic Hunter, Mayor of Lake Charles, Louisiana, knows well.
I reached out to Mayor Hunter’s office to speak with him ahead of the anniversary of Hurricane Laura, the disaster that dealt the first blow to the city’s infrastructure in 2020. In the months that followed, there would be more – another hurricane, a freeze, severe flooding. Four federally declared disasters against the backdrop of Covid-19. Since I’ve been covering
for the past year, I thought it would be useful context to understand the Mayor’s perspective and priorities at this moment.
We ended up speaking not long after Hurricane Ida’s landfall in Southeast Louisiana, and, as he says, Mayor Hunter felt conflicted talking about his quest for long-term recovery aid while his neighbors in the state were in the thick of immediate response. Likewise, I was apprehensive about publishing it. But I decided to, both as a way to mark the anniversary
of this disaster and because his concerns are likely to be shared by other local officials in the state in the coming months. I also think it’s worth noting that many evacuees
fleeing Ida ended up making their way to the Lake Charles area.
Below is our conversation, edited for length and clarity. A quick thank you for your understanding that this email is hitting your inboxes a day later than usual – as a journalist, I never want to be the story, but this week the story (and by that, I mean the storm) came to me. I recognize my immense privilege in being able to ride out this extreme weather safely.
Colleen: Thank you so much for making the time – of course, I especially appreciate it considering the hurricane that’s coming through your state in the few past days. From what I’ve heard and seen, it seemed like your area was spared this time, but, of course, I just wanted to check in with you about that first.
Mayor Hunter: Yes, and I believe we scheduled this conversation before Hurricane Ida had entered the Gulf, but Southwest Louisiana was spared from the effects of Hurricane Ida, and while we have a great need for continued conversation about long-term recovery, the most immediate and pressing need is our neighbors and family to the east of us.
Certainly, we want conversations to continue about the need for supplemental disaster aid, but at the exact moment and exact hour we’re speaking, the most urgent need is making sure that lives are protected in Southeast Louisiana.
Colleen: I did see your post on Facebook earlier today where you kind of talked about, from your experience, what the most helpful aid looks like in this moment. Can you talk a bit more about that?
Mayor Hunter: I think that we as a country and as a federal government have made strides in the way that we respond to the immediate needs – and I can really only speak for hurricanes because I haven’t experienced firsthand other disasters – but FEMA, the National Guard, and other federal agencies, they were here before Laura came in last year, and they were here, boots on the ground, in the hours and days after. And I believe that there was a very coordinated and effective response in the immediate hours leading up to and the immediate hours after Hurricane Laura.
For other agencies and people that are wanting to respond, the needs may be very different. In the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, we were inundated with food and water, and we’re thankful for that because we needed food and water. However, I would venture to say that there were probably some individuals who went to the grocery store and spent $40 on buying some item when a $10 donation to a local charity may have actually been a more efficient and effective donation.
And – I’m trying to be very careful with my comments, because we appreciate the charity so much and people’s instincts to be charitable and be giving, and we are very thankful for that – but the situation is very fluid right now in Southeast Louisiana. And the needs may change day-to-day; the needs may change hour-to-hour, so people around the country who want to help right now, my suggestion is pray for all of Louisiana and then do your research, find a good, vetted charity from Southeast Louisiana that you can support.
Colleen: After Laura last year, I wrote about some residents who started the hashtag #HelpLakeCharles, how they got that to trend, and the significance of it – of people feeling like they needed to turn their personal tragedy into a trending event to kind of get that national attention at a moment when so much was happening in the news and many people [in Lake Charles] felt like what they were experiencing wasn’t recognized outside of not even the state but just their area.
And I’ve noticed that’s kind of similar to what you’ve been doing in recent weeks in putting appeals out there on social media and writing that op-ed for The Washington Post. Can you talk about why you’ve been doing this push to get Lake Charles back in the headlines?
Mayor Hunter: I want people to know that there’s a lot of activity happening behind the scenes on efforts for long-term recovery. When I exercise my social media tools, it is not simply because I’m a voice out there in the wilderness by myself. If that were the only thing that was happening – social media posts – then it truly would be a futile effort, but there’s a lot that’s happening behind the scenes that goes along with that. And I just think it’s important for the general public to stay up to date and also to understand some of the hypocrisies and inequities that are out there.
And again, I almost feel a little conflicted talking about that today with some of the images we’re seeing in Southeast Louisiana, but the long-term recovery for hurricanes – it’s way too political and it should not be. It should not matter who your congressional representation is, it shouldn’t matter how effective certain individuals are or are not, but that is the system that we’re in right now. And that is why I’d like to draw a comparison between what happened with Hurricane Laura and other hurricanes and the incredible lag in supplemental disaster aid.
Colleen: Is there anything that you feel is missing from the national conversation about Lake Charles today or any sort of misconceptions that you feel like you keep coming up against?
Mayor Hunter: Well, I certainly wish there was more conversation about Lake Charles. But other than that, I do think that the attention we have received, for the most part, has been accurate. And the crazy thing is, every reporter I speak with, every politician I speak with have all agreed that we need more help. The question of need is really not there – it’s the logistics for how to get there.
And that’s why I appreciate every bit of coverage we can get, because I also realize that the squeaky wheel gets the grease sometimes. Again that’s just being very blunt – it’s not the way it should be, but if we don’t speak up here in Southwest Louisiana, then we are probably guaranteed to get nothing more than we already have. So, I do think we have to be advocates for ourselves, and because we are not a larger metropolitan area and not an area that has the political clout of some other areas, I do think that with fewer voices, those voices have to be as loud as possible.
Colleen: Your area was spared by this hurricane, but we are still very much within the season that another could occur. How do you feel Lake Charles stands, at this moment, in terms of being prepared to weather another storm?
Mayor Hunter: We are still in the thick of recovery. And every time an event like this happens, when we build back, the idea is to build back stronger. I can tell you that we have a stronger infrastructure today than we had in 2005 when Hurricane Rita hit us. Had a Hurricane Laura-strength event occurred in 2005, it would have been even worse for Lake Charles. So, I can say that in our conversations about moving forward, building back stronger and more resilient are essential parts of that conversation.
However, realistically, we are a year out from a generational event. So, if a Laura, or an Ida hit tomorrow, it would be hitting a city that’s still very battered. And I mean probably more from a neighborhood standpoint and a private citizen standpoint than I mean from a public standpoint. There are homes in this community that literally looked like the hurricane happened yesterday, and again, that’s why the supplemental aid is needed.
In the long run, there’s a big question mark as to what level of resiliency some of these neighborhoods will be able to recover to, and that’s why we are so adamant that supplemental disaster aid is needed. It’s been an unprecedented series of events, and by the way, we’ve been focusing a lot on hurricanes, but don’t forget, Lake Charles has been affected by four federally declared disasters over the course of one year – Hurricane Laura, Hurricane Delta, a winter storm, a 1,000-year flood event in May. That’s more than any other city in America.