As biblical rains pounded Lake Charles in Louisiana last week, beleaguered residents could be forgiven for thinking they have lived in the most unfortunate city in the United States over the past 14 months.
Since last summer, the city has been hit by two major hurricanes, a paralyzing deep freeze, and now flooding rainfall that has inundated hundreds of homes. The latest disaster, which saw 15in of rain in just 12 hours, left people navigating the streets by kayak, salvaging what they could from homes still being patched up from hurricane damage and wondering if the past year is an omen of a deepening climate crisis.
“We are a very resilient people, we are a very strong population,” said Nic Hunter, Lake Charles’ mayor, whose staff had scrambled to rescue electronics from a flooding city hall. His own children were marooned at school. “But, you know, eventually you do kind of get to a point where you ask Mother Nature: what more can you do to us?”
A year of horror for Lake Charles – in south-west Louisiana, between Houston and New Orleans – started when Hurricane Laura slammed into the city in August. Laura was the joint-strongest hurricane ever to make landfall in Louisiana, whipping up winds of up to 150mph and destroying large chunks of the city.
“It just annihilated the city. I went there and it was just far worse than I imagined, I was shocked,” said Barry Keim, a climate scientist at Louisiana State University. “Power poles were lying across the road. So were giant oak trees. Roofs were ripped off everywhere. It was unbelievable, catastrophic damage. And I thought, ‘This is going to take them years or decades to recover from this’.”
There was no respite for Lake Charles, however, with Hurricane Delta delivering a blow to the city just six weeks later. Further calamity hit in February, when a cold snap that gripped much of the US south caused pipes in Lake Charles to burst, triggering widespread drinking water problems. All of these disasters have occurred on top of the ravages of the pandemic.
“In terms of what they’ve been through, the only word is obscene,” said Keim. “It’s just been mind-boggling, insult added to injury again and again. I can’t imagine any location in the US has been hit any worse than Lake Charles.”
Keim said it was difficult to put Lake Charles’s year entirely down to the climate crisis, but that the heating of the atmosphere and ocean is spurring stronger hurricanes and more moisture in the atmosphere is making heavy rainfall more likely. The repeated blows to the city have prompted its mayor to call for a “very bold and honest conversation” about climate change in a community where doubts over climate science are commonplace.
“Climate change is something that is affecting this community,” said Hunter, a Republican. “I know that phrase can engender a lot of emotions with different people, but it is real and it is happening. I just think it would be ridiculous to say that something is not happening.”
Hunter said the climate crisis threatens to push cities like Lake Charles beyond their ability to rebuild and adapt without significant help from the federal government. The city was still waiting on “commensurate” federal aid in the wake of Hurricane Laura, he said, and will need millions of dollars more to upgrade drainage, waterworks and other systems to make them more resilient to future storms and floods.
“This has got to be a wake-up call to Washington that Lake Charles and south-west Louisiana is languishing right now,” Hunter said. “We need help. These monstrous events are wreaking havoc upon systems designed 40 or 50 years ago to deal with events that happened once every 100 years. Now we are getting these events happening multiple times over the past 14 months.”