Maggie Jones’ last trip to her hometown was unlike any other.
The 25-year-old Pequot Lakes resident drove 21 hours to the small town of Iowa, Louisiana, at the end of August, only to find devastation and heartbreak after Hurricane Laura made landfall.
“It just looked like a war zone, like you swear bombs had gone off,” Jones said during an interview Tuesday, Sept. 10. “There was so much destruction, way worse than in the pictures.”
The Category 4 hurricane hit southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas in the early morning hours of Aug. 27 with wind speeds up to 150 mph, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. National Public Radio predicted up to $12 billion in damage the day after it hit. As of Friday, Sept. 11, Louisiana state officials confirmed 28 hurricane-related deaths, with the Associated Press reporting at least five in Texas as of Sept. 6.
“Devastated. Heartbroken,” Jones said of how she felt after seeing her hometown in shambles. Jones, who works at GuidePoint Pharmacy in Breezy Point, grew up in Louisiana before moving to the lakes area five years ago. The roughly 3,000-person town of Iowa, where her parents still live, is about 13 miles east of Lake Charles, which felt the brunt of Hurricane Laura along with the small coastal town of Cameron.
Jones’ parents were luckier than most.
“They had a tree fall on their house, but their house is still standing,” she said. “And they had a broken window, so now it’s just time for repairs.”
They evacuated the day before and weren’t home when the storm struck.
Jones’ dad has a generator and is working to fix things up while her mom finds some reprieve in Minnesota until a sense of normalcy is restored back home.
A lot of friends and relatives weren’t as fortunate and are now living in campers after their houses were destroyed. To make matters worse, power could take a month to be restored, and temperatures in southeastern Louisiana have been in the 90s since the hurricane hit, with heat indices exceeding 100.
“People that don’t have generators — some are dying in their homes from the heat,” Jones said. “Some are sleeping in tents on the sides of roads and parking lots.”
At least eight deaths in Louisiana were attributed to heat-related illnesses with the loss of power after the storm. Another nine died of carbon monoxide poisoning from their generators.
Hotel rooms are booked up, and many don’t have reliable transportation to get out of town. Shelters aren’t open because of COVID-19.
Linemen from all over the country are working to restore power and cell service.
Just hours after the storm hit, a chemical fire broke out at a plant in nearby Westlake, causing major road closures and calls for residents to stay inside when many had no inside to go to.
Aside from the physical catastrophe, the big concern for Jones is the lack of public awareness of what happened.
“When I drove down there, the northern part of Louisiana didn’t even know how bad it was south of them on the coast. And I feel like because there’s not as much publicity about this, I don’t think they’re getting all the help they possibly could be getting,” she said. “But there’s so much love between the people there. They help out others before they even go and fix their own house. So they depend on each other when they don’t have anyone.”
Jones is frustrated by responses from both federal and state governments in Laura’s aftermath.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency denied some applications for emergency funds due to pending insurance claims, according to the Beauregard Daily News. Benefits from the federal Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program were not approved for hurricane victims until September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported — nearly two weeks after the storm.
While Lake Charles is a sizable city of nearly 80,000 people, the fact that it’s not as large as, say, New Orleans, which was unaffected by Hurricane Laura, could play a role in the lack of awareness.
“Some people think that’s why it’s not having as much coverage as (Hurricane) Katrina and things like that because of the area,” Jones said, noting COVID-19 has also overshadowed the event.
Hurricane Laura isn’t Jones’ first experience with a strong storm, but it definitely left the greatest impact.
She was in fifth grade when Hurricane Rita hit the area in 2005. Rita achieved Category 5 status at its peak but weakened to Category 3 by the time it made landfall.
“Being older and seeing everything, I understand now, what really happened then, just not as bad,” Jones said.
She is trying to do her part to help this time around, selling window decals and T-shirts to fund another trip down to Louisiana to bring supplies and help with cleanup. The journey is 2,400 miles roundtrip, and she would need lodging funds as well. If she raises the money needed, Jones said she may host a donation drive in the lakes area to collect nonperishable food items and other necessities to take with her. Those interested in window decals or T-shirts can email Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org. The design on the projects reads “LOVE,” with the shape of Louisiana as the L, and the state outline bearing the words: “After every storm, the sun will rise again. #swlastrong.” T-shirts are $20, and window decals are $6.
“Someone doesn’t know how strong they can be until they’re broken,” Jones said. “And it gives them the opportunity to rebuild themselves stronger than they’ve ever been.”
Fortunately, some help has come from other places as well. The nonprofit group The Cajun Navy is dedicated to natural disaster relief and has helped with rescues, cleanup and donation supplies.
“Love will be the foundation Southwest Louisiana builds on,” Jones said in an email Thursday evening. “They set the perfect example of ‘love thy neighbor’ during hurricane aftermaths. There’s no hate, no division, just love and Cajuns helping Cajuns when all others have failed them. All they have left is each other.”