Hurricane Laura arrived on the shores of Louisiana as a 150-mph Category 4 major hurricane near Cameron in Southwest Louisiana and was still packing devastating winds as the storm passed through Cenla hours later. From an historic perspective, Hurricane Laura is tied for top 5 landfall strength and is the strongest storm to hit Louisiana since 1856. As a result of the strength and speed of the storm, our area received sustained tropical storm force winds around 50 mph and gusts as high as 85 mph that caused widespread wind damage and knocked out power in nearly every corner of our community. The storm left in its wake damage and restoration challenges unseen in this area in generations. But, true to their spirit, the people of Cenla have risen to the occasion, meeting the challenges head on and serving as the heartbeat of Cenla’s storm recovery efforts.
“We knew this storm had the potential to cause a lot of damage, and it certainly did that,” said Alexandria Mayor Jeffrey W. Hall. “While we had some brief issues with high water from the rapid heavy rains, as we expected the wind was the most serious issue. Not only did our electrical distribution take a devastating hit from downed trees and utility poles, but the transmission lines coming into the city were damaged as well, which is what resulted in the entire city losing power.”
“We’ve seen tremendous efforts by our public works crews and public safety employees to maintain city services and keep our citizens safe,” said Pineville Mayor Clarence Fields. “We’re especially thankful for Cleco and their many supporting contractors from 16 other states who are restoring power to our region, including roughly half our city. As we move forward into this recovery, let us continue to work together until all of our citizens are fully restored.”
Local church congregations, civic groups and elected officials mobilized to offer relief in a multitude of ways, large and small. Even a quick glance around the community reveals the innumerable acts of kindness and service that are a hallmark of the people of Central Louisiana.
Calvary Baptist Church, located on Jackson Street in Alexandria, got to work immediately to begin meeting the urgent needs in the community. Over 150 church volunteers mobilized to do wellness checks for the elderly and widowed, prepared and delivered over 2,500 meals to distribution points at area churches and in some of the hardest hit areas. The church opened its doors in the days after the storm to serve as a “cooling center” for elderly and those with special needs to escape the heat as well as serving as a staffing center for the Red Cross. The team of volunteers then headed out into the neighborhoods surrounding the church to provide bottled water to the numerous homes that were still without power along with popsicles and other frozen treats to kids, providing them a much needed smile and some relief from the heat.
Likewise, Lagniappe Theatre Company headed up a supply collection for hurricane relief in the Hineston/Elmer area, which was particularly hard hit and in need of lots of supplies. Spearheaded by owners Ross Shexnayder and Karen Burns Shexnayder, Lagniappe opened the doors of its theatre building, conveniently located on Highway 28 West, directly on the route to the Hineston area. The theatre served as a staging point as they received generous donations of bottled water, hygiene items, clothing, food, tarps, hardware, fans and much more. From there, Karen and Ross were joined by Cenla meteorologist extraordinaire Nick Mikulas and his family, along with a team of dedicated volunteers to sort and distribute the goods in the Lacamp and Hineston areas. The Lagniappe team has kept in contact with the residents after the delivery. “We gave them a call and they said they are getting back to normal,” said Ross. “Power is not fully on in places, but getting fixed a day at a time.”
Recovery efforts are hard work and often time consuming. The first major milestone to getting back to normal is getting the lights (and air conditioning!) back on. Cleco provides power to a majority of the affected area in both rural and metro areas. Nearly 140,000 customers were left without power in the wake of the historic storm. Crews have found 1,600 downed or broken poles, 1,000 damaged transformers, 4,600 damaged crossarms, 5,500 trees on power lines and approximately 350 miles of distribution conductor down. Crews have found 409 trees reported on transmission lines and 167 transmission structures damaged…and counting.
“Each day, we get closer to that magic number of 100 percent restored, which is what we’re working toward every day,” said James Lass, director of distribution operations and emergency management.
The American Red Cross is working tirelessly to help people devastated by Hurricane Laura all over the state, and more than 1,800 trained disaster workers have already been mobilized to support relief efforts on the ground or virtually. The Red Cross has teams of volunteers circulating through accessible areas to assess damage. Thousands of people are coming to service sites set up by the Red Cross and partners to get water, food and emergency relief supplies.
Red Cross workers are also helping to replace prescription medications, eyeglasses and offer emotional support to people whose lives have been turned upside down. The Red Cross is providing food for the World Central Kitchen, the Salvation Army and the Southern Baptist Convention to prepare and serve.
You can make a difference in the lives of people impacted by Hurricane Laura by visiting redcross.org, calling (800) RED-CROSS or texting the word “LAURA” to 90999 to make a $10.00 donation. Donations enable the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to and help people recover from this and other disasters. The Red Cross is also in urgent need of volunteers to help across the state! Please go to http://redcross.org/volunteer to sign up and learn how you can help with the Hurricane Laura response in your local community.
Even before the storm hit, and at the direction of the governor, the Louisiana National Guard has more than 6,200 Guardsmen supporting current and future operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura. Those operations include but are not limited to: logistical support and commodities distribution, road and bridge clearance, and placement of liaison officer teams assisting parish emergency operations centers. The LANG is prepared to send additional trained and ready soldiers and airmen to support civil authorities as needed in response activities, safeguarding the population, saving lives and protecting critical infrastructure.
To date, the LANG has distributed over 70,000 liters of water, 39,000 MREs and 6,200 tarps to the citizens of Louisiana. Pvt. Christopher Dixson, a logistical specialist from Alexandria, is assisting in distributing the water. “Helping feels great because both my dad and brother live here and both had to evacuate for the storm,” said Dixson. He says that his dad is happy that he is doing positive work in the area.
Resources abound for folks who are still working to put the pieces back together. The Red Cross encourages those in need to check the Red Cross of Louisiana Facebook page for the most current times and locations for supply distribution. Residents in Acadia, Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron, Grant, Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Lincoln, Natchitoches, Ouachita, Rapides, Sabine, Vermilion, Vernon, and Winn parishes may be eligible for FEMA help. “Just as we are grateful for the help and support we received to restore our electrical system, we are very grateful to the President and the federal officials with FEMA for their support,” Mayor Hall said. “I want to thank Gov. John Bel Edwards, Senators Cassidy and Kennedy, Rep. Ralph Abraham, state Senator Jay Luneau, our state representatives, and everyone who worked so hard to get this much-needed assistance for our residents.”
Assistance provided by FEMA for homeowners and renters can include grants for rent and repairs to make their primary home habitable. It can also help other serious disaster-related needs like replacing essential household items, medical and dental expenses and funeral and burial costs.
If you have uninsured or underinsured losses, contact FEMA by either going online to disasterassistance.gov, downloading the FEMA app or by calling the helpline at (800) 621-3362 or TTY (800) 462-7585. Louisiana homeowners and renters who register for FEMA disaster assistance after Hurricane Laura should stay in frequent touch with FEMA to ensure the disaster assistance process stays on track. Survivors should update contact information as soon as possible any time it changes because FEMA may need to reach them to perform virtual home inspections or get additional information. Survivors should file an insurance claim at the same time as they apply to FEMA. Save yourself time, if you have insurance, you must file a claim.
FEMA reminds applicants that it is important to remember that the funds are to be used only for certain disaster-related expenses. FEMA may audit survivors to confirm they spent grants for basic home repairs, replacing essential household items or paying for somewhere to stay if they cannot return home. Be sure to keep all receipts for covered expenditures.
For the business community, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) is offering low-interest disaster loans to non-farm businesses of all sizes, private nonprofit organizations, homeowners and renters in several affected parishes who suffered losses caused by Hurricane Laura that occurred August 22nd through August 27th. Loans are available to individuals and families, homeowners, renters, nonprofit organizations and businesses to cover losses due to property damage, economic injury and more.
For more information or to see if you qualify, the SBA has established a Virtual Disaster Loan Outreach Center that is open Mondays through Sundays from 7:00am to 7:00pm. You can contact an SBA customer service representative via email at FOCWAssistance@sba.gov or by phone at (800) 659-2955.
Law enforcement at all levels is keenly focused on protecting and educating survivors about potential fraud via scam or price gouging in the wake of the storm. When natural disasters occur, it is common for some people to try to take advantage of survivors by posing as official disaster aid workers trying to help survivors complete their applications. Scam attempts can be made over the phone, by mail or email, text or in person. Louisiana survivors of Hurricane Laura should be aware of fraud and scams and report any suspicious activity or potential fraud from scam artists, identity thieves and other criminals. Federal, state and authorized utility workers never ask for or accept money and always carry identification badges. There is no fee required to have your utility infrastructure restored, or to apply for or to get federal disaster assistance.
“We have received reports from customers of fraudulent phone calls which is not unusual when there’s a natural disaster like Hurricane Laura,” said James Lass, director of distribution operations and emergency management at Cleco. “Scammers use unprecedented events to prey on us when we’re preoccupied. As we continue to restore power, we’re reminding customers to be on alert for fraudulent phone calls, text messages and emails, as well as in-person scammers posing as Cleco representatives.”
During each disaster it’s important to stay tuned to local media and trusted local and federal social media for current updates about ongoing disasters with tips on disaster fraud. If something makes you feel uncomfortable, check with FEMA or local law enforcement to ensure your identity is protected. Those who question the validity of a contact or suspect fraud are encouraged to call the FEMA Disaster Fraud Hotline at (866) 720-5721 and/or your local law enforcement agency.
The challenges are daunting but the strength and spirit of the people of Central Louisiana continues to shine through. It is that determination and generosity of spirit that has seen us come together through hardships before and will certainly carry us through the challenge ahead. If you are fortunate enough to be in a position to help, please reach out through your church, civic organization, Red Cross or simply to your neighbor. Donate blood and plasma as you are able. If you need help, please don’t hesitate to ask. Your community is waiting with open arms and open hearts to help any way they can. Cenla’s storm recovery is well underway. Together, we will come back better than ever because we are #CenlaStrong!