Saturday, October 8

I'm a Hurricane Rita Evacuee, my last part

As the second week after Hurricane Rita’s passing through winds down, things are starting to look up in Lake Charles for the first time.
Our water supply is OK to drink and the toilets can be flushed. Stores, restaurants and gas stations are starting to open back up. Most of the town has gotten power back but there are still some sections in north and south Lake Charles that lack electricity.
My street got its electricity back on earlier this week. Well sort of. The problem was that my house was the only one that still didn’t have power. How could this be, I thought.
The lights on the second floor came on but not on the first floor. The power meter didn’t even work. An Entergy engineer came out and looked at it. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong. He said he would send some workers to look over my electrical setup.
It was frustrating. My mother’s cottage in my backyard had electricity. The line that powers her home was underground. I decided to set up shop there.
You see for the past week or so I had been sleeping in my mini-van. It was too hot to sleep in my house. I would run the air-conditioner for 30 minutes and the van stayed cool most of the night.
The van was my lifeline throughout this disaster. I used it to charge up my cell-phone and my laptop. I ate in it and kept all of my non-perishable foods in it with all of my supplies. I watched my battery-powered TV there too. I even listened to Sinatra.
But like anything new, it got old pretty quick. My mom’s house was a welcome relief.
As for my house, I waited for the Entergy guys but then something funny happened. I was talking to my neighbor, Mark, across the street when a man came jogging by. He lived down the street from me. He said he was an electrician. I told him about my problem. He walked over and shook the meter box. He turned on the breaker and the power came on to both floors of my house. It was great. I couldn’t believe it.
These past two weeks have been like that. At times when things seemed so frustrating something funny would happen to make things a little more upbeat and give me hope that my town would come back from this catastrophe.
I have certainly learned a lot from it and a lot about myself. Hurricane Rita and her impact on Lake Charles is by far the biggest news story that I have ever covered in my 28 years as a journalist in this town.
At the same time as a lifelong resident of Lake Charles, I couldn’t be prouder of my hometown. My public officials, who are suppose to keep us safe, did everything right in preparation of this hurricane’s arrival. As a result, almost the entire city and surrounding area evacuated way in advance of the hurricane coming here.
Even those persons who didn’t have vehicles to leave town were helped. City officials didn’t want anyone to be stranded like those at the New Orleans Superdome or Morial Convention Center. Buses were provided for anyone who needed a ride out of town to escape the storm. A lot of people showed up to get that free ride.
Afterwards, the same officials made it clear people should stay out of town until it was safe to return. My law enforcement officials were on top of it too. They moved quickly to make sure anyone wanting to take advantage of the massive blackout after the storm hit were soon sitting in a sweaty jail cell drinking hot water and eating MREs (meals ready to eat).
Would you believe we had members of the FBI, Secret Service and U.S. Marshal’s Service patrolling our streets at night for looters? It’s true.
Local volunteers also did everything they could afterwards to make sure those who remained behind were comfortable and not in need. Water, ice and food were plentiful in a number of sites throughout the parish thanks to the Salvation Army, Red Cross and different church groups.
The response to Hurricane Rita after she struck Lake Charles was a complete about face compared to what happened weeks before in New Orleans. It’s safe to say Lake Charles was the shining light in all of this hurricane destruction and mayhem. My city and my parish proved that pre-planning and team work can pay off in the path of a major destructive hurricane.
I also know after all I have seen and heard since the storm hit Sept. 24 I will never take an incoming hurricane for granted. We were fortunate that 95 percent of the city felt the same way and left before Rita got here. There could have been a large number of fatalities if residents had not heeded the mandatory evacuation orders.
I will never forget Hurricane Rita and all of the things I saw these past two weeks. I don’t want to forget them. Some of these were life-changing experiences that have made me appreciative for what I still have after the storm.
Some things from the storm that will always remain in my thoughts are:
* The blue wrist band: The day before the hurricane hit I was at the American Press news bureau in DeRidder with my four kids and my mom. My wife, a TV reporter, called me crying and I asked her what was wrong. She had stayed behind in Lake Charles at her station, KPLC-TV, with others to cover the storm’s arrival. She told me they had put a blue wrist band on her containing phone numbers and other contact information. The band would be used if someone found her body after the storm hit and couldn’t identify her. She told me the wrist band made her afraid she would never see her family again. I tried to comfort her.
* The storm sounds: As the hurricane winds ripped through DeRidder early Saturday morning I lay on the floor of the news bureau. All four of my kids were sound asleep close by. As the storm came through I could hear eerie noises and loud crashing sounds; metal bending and things breaking. I envisioned debris hurling through the air. It was so scary. I thought the roof of the building we were in might tear off. I’m sure we had winds close to 100 miles per hour. They say a passing tornado sounds like train but the hurricane winds I heard made more of a howling sound like a wounded animal in the night.
* No complaints: My four kids are ages 17, 15, 13 and 7. I worried about them as we evacuated Lake Charles for DeRidder the Thursday night before the storm hit. They slept three nights in DeRidder on the floor of the news bureau. Once the power went out, the building started to get hot and there were no facilities to take baths. The food we ate was cold except for some MREs they got. And all through this adventure of sorts, they never complained, whined and said they wanted to go home. Even my 7-year-old didn’t cry once. He entertained himself by making action figures out of plastic utensils and cups. I’m so proud of my kids. They even got along the whole time. They were true troopers. What more could a parent ask for out of their children.
* The evacuation: The drives from Lake Charles to DeRidder the day of the mandatory evacuation and from DeRidder to Houston the day after the storm were certainly eye-openers. We all saw things I know we will never forget. We saw fear, anguish, frustration, and anger. People ran out of gas and others saw their cars break down. This lead to many people taking desperate actions like begging for gas or trying to get a ride. They got neither. The destruction of the storm we saw on the drive from DeRidder to Houston told us that we were lucky we had found a shelter to stay in. My kids were in awe of nature’s fury as they saw huge trees snapped in half or buildings ripped apart. They now know hurricanes are nothing to kid around with.
* My dark neighborhood: I came back to Lake Charles two days after the storm hit to get back to work and found a town in shambles. I had no power on my street for more than a week. The big difference between the 1997 ice storm that put Lake Charles in the dark for days and Hurricane Rita was that people didn’t evacuate when the ice storm came. They lit candles and fired up flashlights in their homes. However, in Rita’s case, no one was here. The city was a ghost town of sorts. I remember one night sitting on my front porch watching my black and white battery-powered TV with a flashlight on. I turned everything off and sat there for a moment. I have never seen it so dark and so quiet. The sky was clear so I could see the stars. I remember thinking how surreal it all seemed.
* Food lines: Fortunately, I didn’t have to eat potted meat every day after the hurricane hit, there was a place nearby set up by a group called “Cooking for Christ.” They served hot lunches every day so I sometimes would go by and get a meal. It was so good. The volunteers were mainly from Baton Rouge but there were others from all over. I remember a woman telling me she had driven to Lake Charles from New Castle, Indiana. Her church group had taken vacation time to come here and help us. I was really touched one day when I was standing in line waiting for a meal. I looked back and saw dozens of people waiting. They were rich and poor, lawyers and blue-collar workers, old and young. It was such an amazing mixture of people but it was like they were all good friends. Finally, when the food was ready to be served, the head cook yelled out, “We are going to say a prayer.” We all prayed and thanked God for the meal. All of us in the line said, “Amen.”
* Big trees: I love trees. One reason I bought my Iris Street home in 1993, was so our family could enjoy the big trees in the backyard. I had more than a dozen trees good for climbin’ or drinkin’ lemonade in the shade. Rita has changed all of that. Many of them were seriously damaged by the storm. I don’t know if they will ever be the same. And all of the big oak trees downtown and others have all been slammed hard too. Some uprooted while others are so badly damaged they will probably have to be cut down. I know this is nature’s way but I truly believe that the downtown trees saved many of our houses. Sure, some of them fell on homes but others didn’t. They acted as buffers to block the hurricane winds from our homes. In a sense, they were hurt while trying to protect us. We should never forget them.
In closing this last part of my hurricane blog, I recognize some people say they don’t want to live here anymore because of the risk of hurricanes. I was born and raised in Lake Charles, and choose to stay here to raise a family and live out my life. I will rebuild and be better prepared for the next hurricane if it comes. As Americans, we have always been taught to take the high ground and hold it. That’s what I plan to do.

Hector San Miguel
American Press
City Editor


Tiffany said...

I was so touched to read your story about the hurricane. my family and I evacuated a few days before the storm. We were also trapped during hurricane Katrina when it hit Mississippi. We feel like someone was watching over us during that time. My aunt pasted away the end of August and that was one of the reasons we left. I can't believe the stories I've heard, it doesn't even sound like Lake Charles anymore. My prays are with everyone who has gone back to our torn and beaten town. We will certainly be thinking about everyone.

Anonymous said...

Hector: has anyone ever explained way Cameron Parish was not allowed 100% cleanup cost, like New Orleans and Miss.?

Anonymous said...

its 2 years later from hurricane rita and then the road home program unlike some people i was eligable but yet i wasnt cause i bought my home on a lease contract i wasnt so my papers never even got looked at but some people got it and there house wasnt even damaged by the hurricane. i get tired of hearing how much so and so is getting and i really thought this program was for people who didnt have home owners insurance. all i hear from different people is that im getting this much i know someone who had insurance and they got there place fixed and now they are getting 29,000 dollars my husband and i bought our house just a few weeks before the hurricane and could not get insurance and all we got from fema was a enough to fix one room that got damaged and nails and tar to fix the roof which did not fix it all i wanted from the road home program was enough to fix that not . not to get rich like some people or to do things to my house i started before rita. my papers did not even get looked at because i bought my house on a lease agreement i was told because i didnt have it financed through a bank i didnt own my house but when i go to get insurance i have to buy home owners and if i apply for credit i have to answer that i own my house not renting so please someone tell me what the difference is even though its to late for the road home program to get still get help thanks for nothing