'I lost everything': In hurricane-ravaged Louisiana, people struggle to rebuild

Key Points
  • Louisiana has been devastated by this season's hurricanes. The working-class city of Lake Charles was hit especially hard by Hurricanes Laura and Delta in August and October.
  • Some have endured weeks of frustrating haggling with bureaucracies to get insurance money and government aid. Others desperately search for help to fix wrecked properties, but endure long waits for contactors.
  • "Everything I've worked for is gone," said Tameka Nelson, who ran a daycare facility in Lake Charles that was destroyed by Laura.
Tracy Miller, 60, carries an item through floodwater that is left after Hurricane Laura landed along the Texas-Louisiana border in Cameron, Louisiana on August 30, 2020.
Callaghan OHare | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Two days after Hurricane Laura barreled through Louisiana in August, Tameka Nelson returned to her beloved daycare facility in Lake Charles to find it in ruins. She fell to her knees and sobbed.

The storm tore part of the roof off. Inside, years worth of toys, crafts and important documents were destroyed. Nothing was salvageable and the building would have to be demolished.

"It was devastating. Everything I've worked for is gone," said Nelson, 40, who's run Nelson Academy daycare for 15 years. "I lost everything."

Nelson managed to find a rental building and spent her savings constructing a new daycare space. But with no state funding and a deadline to get approval to open the space by the year's end, Nelson fears she'll run out of time and money.

Hurricane Zeta lashed the Louisiana coast this week, the fifth named storm to hit the state during a long and exhausting season. The storms have decimated homes, forced widespread evacuations and knocked out power for thousands of people. The working-class city of Lake Charles was hit especially hard by Hurricanes Laura and Delta in August and October. Thousands of people are still displaced.

During the dangerous global coronavirus pandemic and one of the most brutal hurricane seasons on record, people are trying to restore their homes and businesses — an agonizing process that's become routine for Louisiana residents.

Some have endured weeks of frustrating haggling with bureaucracies to get insurance money and government aid. Others desperately search for help to fix wrecked properties, but encounter long waits for in-demand contactors, some of whom are dealing with damage to their own homes.

"Knowing my community needs me because parents need to go back to work and my workers need their job to pay bills. I'm at a loss," Nelson said. "I pray to push forward."

Amid the turmoil, Louisiana residents recount unpleasant memories of past destruction from major hurricanes like Rita in 2005. They also brace for future storms, which are becoming more frequent and catastrophic with climate change.

Hurricane Laura collapsed the roof and destroyed the inside of Tameka Nelson's daycare facility in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Courtesy of Tameka Nelson

Cameron, a town south of Lake Charles, has been eviscerated by hurricanes over the last few decades. After the area endured destruction from Hurricanes Rita and Ike in 2005 and 2008, many people left and the population dropped nearly 80% by the end of the decade, according to U.S. Census data.

Laura crushed entire homes and killed over a dozen people in Cameron, and six weeks later Delta unleashed more destruction. The combination of storms made it difficult for some people to discern which storm did what amount of damage.

Lifelong Cameron resident Jennifer Picou, 57, and her husband Terry, 60, first lost their home to Rita 15 years ago. When Laura blew through and tore the roof off their home this year, the couple replaced it with a makeshift one. Then Delta arrived, tearing it off and further flooding the house.

They now live in an RV and struggle to manage their local fisheries facility without electricity and proper running water or refrigeration. However, Picou maintained they're lucky because their house is insured, as many residents' homes in Cameron are not.

It's unclear how many Cameron residents will be able to afford to rebuild homes after the hurricanes this year because of inflated construction costs and increasingly strict building codes.

"It's total destruction here," Picou said. "You come back and you have nothing. That's heartbreaking."

The recent hurricanes have caused at least $12 billion in damage to Louisiana residential and commercial properties, according to an estimate from property data analysis firm CoreLogic. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has already approved more than $180 million in individual and household aid for Hurricane Laura victims.

Kaitlynn Hollier, 32, a mother of four who lives just outside of Lake Charles, said Laura wrecked her home in August. She and her husband Jeremy, 33, moved their family to a temporary camper that was eventually destroyed by Delta.

Louisiana resident Kaitlynn Hollier's children visit their home after Hurricane Laura damaged it in August.
Courtesy of Kaitlynn Hollier

After weeks of negotiations with their insurance company and camping out at friends' houses, the family finally received insurance money for a few months rent and can start repairs to their home. But they said contractors are spread too thin right now.

"I'm exhausted. It's a slow process and we're gonna have to redo everything in house," Hollier said. While her family is settled in the rental place nearby her home, Hollier is worried about how the displacement has affected her young girls, ages seven, five, three and one. During the moving process, she's noticed her girls are sleeping less and are more irritable.

"Stress manifests differently in children. Having to move this much, being displaced and seeing their home this way," Hollier said. "We're trying to rebuild, and keep up with school work."

There's uncertainty about what the future holds for residents in hurricane-prone places like Cameron and Lake Charles. But some residents who have endured profound loss are also committed to staying if they can afford it.

Nelson, the daycare owner, fled New Orleans to Lake Charles in 2005 to escape Hurricane Katrina, the massive Category 5 that claimed 1,800 lives and caused $125 billion in damage.

Years later, Nelson surveys the fallout from Laura — the loss of her business, the wreckage to her home from a fallen tree — and says it's time to help rebuild the community.

"We came here to start fresh ... we've worked so hard," Nelson said. "I wouldn't turn my back on Lake Charles. We're going to be here for a while."

The bricks are so heavy: Louisiana hurricane victim
The bricks are so heavy: Louisiana hurricane victim