September 27, 2005 - October 5, 2005: Refugees and The Reconnaissance Trip
Meanwhile, my distraught parents were watching news coverage of the storm. Because most of the members of the press had evacuated as well, news from the area was slow in arriving. Because of the wide area affected, what little news came out was not specific enough to allow individuals to know the state of their own homes based on a few camera shots from outside the television studio. However, it was obvious that significant damage had occurred in the area and that few people would be going home anytime soon. A state of emergency and curfew was declared, limiting access to the area in order to prevent both injury and lawlessness.
Faced with this situation, made more difficult my my father's lack of mobility, my mother decided to retrace their trip from the north and return to their vacation home in Missouri. I was able to gain access to some information on the Internet via blogs that allowed the few people who were still in the area to share their observations. The area newspaper (The Lake Charles American Press) and the television station (KPLC-7) also had some information on their websites, although their ability to report was limited by the state of emergency and the impassibility of streets littered with tree limbs, shattered glass and downed power lines.
The storm downed a significant portion of the area's electrical infrastructure including lines in residential neighborhoods, lines to substations and generating plants. While initial fears were of outages lasting months, electrical crews from around the country converged on the area and managed to get a significant percentage of Calcasieu Parish back up within two weeks. However, faced with a sudden disappearance of revenue, staggering costs for repair, and the limited amount of available cash associated with newly "streamlined" and deregulated utility companies, Entergy declared bankruptcy on 9/23.
Most of us are only vaguely conscious of how dependent our modern lifestyles are upon a reliable source of electrical power. Aside from the need for electrical appliances for food preparation and storage, in my parent's case, power was also necessary to power the water well. Air conditioning has also become basically essential to combat the oppressive sub-tropical South Louisiana heat. Without electricity, my parent's home would have been uninhabitable, especially considering my father's condition.
Since it was obvious that my mother would not be able to drag my disabled father around a disaster area, I volunteered to take a reconnaissance trip the following weekend.
As conditions in the city improved, parish law enforcement entered a "Look and Leave" phase with a dusk-to-dawn curfew. This was to prevent looting and supposedly anyone caught outside after dark would be hauled off to jail. There were also tales of helicopters with infrared detectors patrolling selected neighborhoods at night...maybe the rich folks on the other side of town. People that stayed in the neighborhood said they never saw any cops patrolling, although no one I spoke with in the neighborhood had any looting problem. Regardless, in the absence of electricity, grocery stores, gas stations and other essentials of contemporary life, the community was not capable of supporting thousands of returning evacuees.
I flew out of New York into St. Louis on October 2, rented a car, drove down to Salem to spend the night and then left for the 16-hour drive to Louisiana. Because of the curfew, it would not be possible to do the drive in one day and get in before dark. Because of the displacement of people, it would not be possible to get a hotel anywhere close to Lake Charles. So I decided I would simply pull over when I got tired and sleep in the car.
Paradoxically, the road trip was not entirely unpleasant, as I was accompanied by a new Sirius Satellite Radio receiver and had no rigid time constraints. I pulled off briefly to visit a couple of attractive Missouri springs and the Bill Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock - which is adjacent to a fascinating, old, abandoned early 20th-century railroad bridge. I spent the night in the parking lot of a hospital in Winnfield, LA.
When I woke up early the next morning, I filled up with gas in Alexandria, LA, anticipating difficulty in getting fuel in Lake Charles. The attendant said he had only recently began receiving fuel shipments again, since his normal distributor was based in Lake Charles.
I got to Lake Charles early on Tuesday, October 4. Although I saw extensive damage and downed power lines on my way out to the house (about 5 minutes off the Interstate), I was surprised to see little observable external damage to the house. There were two large trees down in the front yard, but they fell away from the house, sparing would would have been catastrophic damage. The primary observable damage were patches of shingles that had been blown off the roof.
As I entered the house, it became obvious that that the seemingly minimal external damage had resulted in a major internal problem. Water that had entered the house during the storm and rainfall on subsequent days had entered the ceilings and walls under the affected roof areas. This resulted in large and colorful patches of mold in my parent's bedroom, the living room and a bedroom used as a storage room. The "Den" and my old bedroom in the back of the house were unaffected, although the smell of the mold was very strong throughout the house. The mold in the master bedroom was especially attractive, with orange patches that observers said were completely novel to them. While there is a notorious black mold that emits deadly toxins, this did not appear to be that variety, since I was able to spend a considerable amount of time in the house over the next two months with no observable respiratory distress.