Abandoned, rebuilt and uncertain lie in the wake of Louisiana’s strongest hurricane of all time. One writer and photographer noted that much of the destruction “was still exactly as it would have been the day after Laura’s hit.”
This first-person account was written by Charlie Randall, who took all the photos during a storm chase in Cameron Parish, Louisiana. He produced this article for Yale Climate Connections, where it originally appeared.
It’s pretty surreal to be camping on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in Cameron Parish and knowing how the ocean rose about 18 feet under the force of Hurricane Laura a year and a half ago.
This storm surge swept inland across sparse but still populated bays and wetlands in southern Louisiana, destroying homes, businesses, infrastructure and cemeteries.
I had come down from Canada to start a two month road trip focused on chasing the storm and didn’t really know what I would find 18 months after Laura’s hit.
However, the scars are everywhere. Cement slabs are reminiscent of former houses. Reeds and marsh grass, still covered by trees high above, testify to the height the water reached. Rows of bent fence posts, shredded by the unrelenting water pressure from the Gulf. Trailers everywhere as the people who live here consider whether to rebuild.
I was driving east on Highway 82, the closest road to the Gulf. I knew this would take me through the hardest hit areas of Cameron Parish, but having never witnessed hurricane damage it was still shocking to see the extent of the destruction and how much of it was still exactly as it was on Day after the impact of Laura.
The first indication of what had happened came as I passed a now-abandoned house that had been flooded and badly damaged by a storm surge. It was filled with reeds from the swamps to the south. The house was six or seven feet above the street, which itself was about the same height above sea level. Whoever lived here must have left before the storm, come back to see the devastation, and decided they had had enough.
The area is now even more sparsely populated as many more have chosen not to return. The mass mobilization of resources that often takes place in more populated areas in response to a storm like these does not appear to have happened in the same way here. Although water and electricity have since been restored, I did see a few infrastructure buildings that had the lower portions of the sidings ripped off: they were still exposed to the elements but appeared to be functioning at a reasonably normal level.
Things are moving forward, more storms are yet to come.
This notion of moving forward without fully fixing everything seems a possible admission that more storms could lie in the future. Random debris from the storm still remains scattered throughout the swamps, slowly tangled up in the local ecosystem while birds perch on tins and alligators maneuver around broken cement pipes.
One day, while cycling around, I met a young rancher, Carl, who told me that he and his extended family once had three houses on the property we were standing on. Laura destroyed all three along with all his farming equipment (he had sold 185 head of cattle three days before the storm and gave him some money to work with in the future). All that remained was a huge tree with a tire swing somehow attached to it.
Carl grew up here, and although he said he didn’t originally plan to return and looked for land near Shreveport and in Texas (but he says he doesn’t like Texas), he decided to go with his wife and children come back here and give farming another try. He won’t be building any more houses, though, and is one of the many here who now live off trailers, knowing that if a future storm threatens again, they can at least move them out of the way.
Below is a much more morbid reminder of the power of water. Burial of the dead in these southern swamps takes place at ground level, with coffins placed in cement coffins just a foot deep in the ground. The reason? The groundwater here is far too high to dig deep into the ground.
When Laura hit, the combination of an increasingly saturated ground and the incoming storm surge resulted in a situation where the coffins and cement coffins were uplifted and then pushed north with the surging water. Some have been recovered, but it seems likely many were lost in the sprawling swamps.
Changing landscapes leave both physical and social scars
The power of a hurricane is perhaps best understood in terms of its ability to transform entire landscapes, both physically and socially. The magnitude of the impact can be so far-reaching that it takes years to recover, if at all, as seems to be the case here in Louisiana. However, humans are incredibly adaptable and resilient, and many buildings in the area were not damaged as badly. Cameron High School, for example, although suffering severe roof damage, was not affected by the flood because the school was raised 15 feet on concrete piers. While this is a luxury many cannot afford, any long-term livability in the area depends on improvements like these.
On a clear blue sky day, breezy and warm, the beauty of this place makes it easy to see why people like Carl and his family have returned, albeit reluctantly. People often blame hurricane survivors for being in danger in the first place. But when you’re growing up in a place and it’s the only life you know… the idea of just getting up and leaving isn’t always a viable or appealing option.
As I leave, I tell Carl about the almost unobstructed 360-degree horizon all around us and the awe it inspires, as I’ve never really seen anything like it. He complains that if he had his old tractor with a shovel lift on it, he would put me in and lift me as high as possible so I could really get a feel for the size of the open country. Of course, this beautiful unobstructed view is partly why Laura’s surf was able to sweep inland so easily.
As with most things in nature, and storms in particular, it is the juxtaposition of beauty and destruction that inspires both fear and awe in us as a species and has fascinated people around the world for centuries. Unfortunately, whatever this year’s hurricane season brings, the beauty of all these places along the coast will eventually succumb to the unprecedented force of the hurricanes.
Charlie Randall is a Canadian photojournalist, former meteorology student and now an avid storm chaser who travels parts of the United States observing extreme weather and its aftermath.