"Barely hanging on" How climate disasters are displacing communities in Louisiana

By MegAnne Liebsch

September 21, 2021 — From above, Lake Charles, Louisiana, is a patchwork of cerulean blue tarpaulin, stitched onto the dull grey and black of roof tiles. In some areas, rooves are ripped clean off, exposing jumbled beams and capsized walls spewing tufts of insulation. The destruction is lingering evidence of four federally declared weather disasters to hit the city in one year.

Earning Lake Charles the title of “most weather-battered city in the U.S.,” the barrage of disasters have uprooted more than physical structures. They have spurred widespread displacement, sinking a community with stark economic and racial inequalities into further vulnerability.

Climate displacement

Lake Charles is a prime example of climate displacement. According to UNESCO, climate displacement is forced migration (within a person’s home country or internationally) spurred by the impacts of climate change — natural disasters, extreme drought, food shortages or rising sea levels.

Worldwide, climate is the leading cause of displacement. In 2020, 55 million people were forced to migrate due to extreme weather events. That’s three times more people than were displaced by conflict and violence.

Photo: Firefighters try to contain a wildfire on the Greek island of Evia (CNS photo/Stelios Misinas, Reuters).

Intensifying weather patterns are associated with climate change, according to scientists with the Lancet Countdown. In the Atlantic, warmer waters and rising sea levels are causing stronger and wetter storms. NOAA named a staggering 30 storms during the U.S. Atlantic hurricane season. Ultimately, eleven storms made landfall, breaking the previous record of nine.

For Lake Charles, the barrage began in August. Hurricane Laura scourged Lake Charles with 150-mile-per-hour winds and catastrophic flooding. It was closely followed by hurricanes Delta and Zeta. Then, in February, Winter Storm Uri blanketed the city in ice, causing burst pipes and rolling blackouts. A few months later, a 1,000-year rainstorm dumped 15 inches on Lake Charles in one hour.

Photo: Signs and debris are seen outside a home in Lake Charles, La., ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Delta Oct. 8, 2020. (CNS photo/Adrees Latif, Reuters)

Hurt the first, hurt the most

Over 95 percent of the structures in Lake Charles were damaged by the storms, displacing over 10,000 people. A year on, thousands of homes remain unlivable. The city estimates its population has decreased by 6.7 percent due to displacement.

The consequences of these extreme storms compound existing inequities—like housing and food insecurity, education access, and job stability.

“The disasters, as they're happening more frequently and with more ferocity, they're not just destroying people, but they're destroying the basic threads of community that we rely on,” says Loyola University New Orleans law professor Bill Quigley. A practicing lawyer, Quigley represented renters in Lake Charles in a class action lawsuit to guarantee their housing rights in the wake of the hurricanes.

Quigley has worked on natural disaster housing relief across much of the U.S. South and in Haiti. With each disaster, the same patterns emerged. “In terms of climate impact, poor people and people of color are the folks that are hurt the most,” Quigley explains. “They're hurt the first. They're hurt the most. And they get the least amount of assistance to be able to recover.”

People in New Orleans displaced by Hurricane Laura look through items that had been dropped off on a curb Aug. 30, 2020. (CNS photo/Kathleen Flynn, Reuters)
“We’re sort of being viewed as expendable.”—Adley Cormier, Lake Charles resident and local historian

Given the widespread destruction and displacement, Lake Charles is facing a vast housing crisis. The blue tarps, erected as temporary roofing covers, have become semi-permanent fixtures as families wait for insurance claims or federal emergency funds to cover repairs.

Nearly one in four Lake Charles residents live in poverty. For Black residents, the poverty rate is 29.2 percent. Without insurance or federal emergency funds, many families can’t afford to fix their homes or businesses. Some continue to live in their damaged or mold-infested homes. Others are forced to pay for hotels or rent temporary housing on their own. With the extensive damage in Lake Charles, most people are driven further afield in search of housing — as much as 150 miles away.

“It’s not unusual for homeowners and renters to have lived in five or more places since Hurricane Laura hit,” says Quigley. In the immediate aftermath of disasters, securing housing, food and water is people’s main concern. “Even just getting those — it can take more than a year to get back to having a clean, safe place to live.”

In his work, he’s met scores of people who can’t return home, chronically shuffling between temporary accommodations. After Hurricane Laura destroyed her home, one woman, a retiree on fixed income, rented housing 70 miles away from Lake Charles. To meet with insurance adjusters about her home repair estimates, she had to commute back and forth most days. But she was evacuated from that town during Hurricane Zeta and moved for a short time to Texas. Now, she rents another house in Lake Charles, as her home remains unlivable. Paying rent for the temporary housing, plus utility bills for both properties, has left her strapped for cash.

“People who don't have the resources are just barely hanging on and they get left behind very quickly in the race for repairs, for replacements, for insurance, for government aid,” says Quigley.

Nowhere to go

Quigley and fellow Loyola law professor Davida Finger represented hundreds of Lake Charles renters who were evacuated during the hurricanes. To fix the damages in the apartment complexes, landlords (mostly corporate) evicted their tenants.

“They gave the people very short notice to come back, empty their apartments, cancel their leases,” says Quigley. “Or they would go ahead and just dump all their stuff out.”

Most of the tenants had nowhere to go — let alone a place to store their belongings.

Photo: Aerial footage of Lake Charles after Hurricane Laura, Aug. 30, 2020. (CNS photo/Drone Base, Reuters)

Renters have very few protections under Louisiana state law. While the federal government offers temporary housing vouchers to public housing tenants, private renters have no such guarantees. In most situations, such protections — including disaster relief funds — are funneled only to landlords.

“Renters are on their own,” Quigley explains. “The joke is, how many renters do you think have seats in the House of Representatives in your state? Versus how many landlords?”

Ultimately, Quigley and his team stopped the evictions in Lake Charles, guaranteeing tenants time to find new housing.

Photo: A man with his bike through a damaged gas station left in the wake of Hurricane Laura as Hurricane Delta approaches in Lake Charles, La., Oct. 9, 2020. (CNS photo/Jonathan Bachman, Reuters)

For renters and homeowners alike, the compounding crises in Lake Charles have led to permanent displacement. Families especially can’t wait for landlords to repair units or for the federal government to disburse recovery funds. Kids need to get back to school. Parents need work. As a result, many families cannot afford to return to Lake Charles.

Displacement shreds through the fabric of a community, according to Quigley. In poor and rural communities like Lake Charles, people depend on community institutions — your church, your neighbors who babysit your kids or offer you rides to the doctor.

“That's all just pulverized,” Quigley says. “It just destroys these community ties — the things that really help us live fully human lives.”

Right to return

Frequently, climate displacement is perceived to be a distant issue — something that happens in far-flung island nations or the sweltering sub-Sahara. The residents of Lake Charles tell a different story.

According to international human rights law, all displaced people have a “right to return” once the reasons for their displacement cease to exist. Governments are therefore obligated to assist displaced people in returning to their homes. But many Lake Charles residents won’t return home — not because it is unsafe, but because colliding socio-economic factors make it impossible. In the final tally, the cost of climate disasters is paid by the people with the most to lose.

Learn more about climate displacement worldwide through our email campaign, Climate Push.

Created By
MegAnne Liebsch