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The `forgotten disaster’

Laura was going to capture the nation’s attention with its ferocity; it didn’t, and the nation moved on

No longer on your nightly news (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Hurricane Laura made landfall Aug. 26 on Louisiana’s southwestern Gulf Coast with winds clocked as high as 150 mph and “unsurvivable” 15- to 20-foot storm surges that threatened to spread 30 miles inland. It was predicted by some in the media to be the storm to end all storms.

Two weeks later, Laura is likely heading toward the dungeon of “forgotten disasters.”

To Kathy Fulton, executive director of the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN) and a Louisiana native, the story follows an all-too-familiar pattern. The 24-hour news cycle moved on long ago. The 2020 presidential election, in the eyes of many the most important in modern American history, has entered the home stretch. Racial unrest and violence produces strong images and daily headlines. A once-a-century pandemic continues to strafe the land, leaving death and economic hardship in its wake.

Laura’s death toll, as of earlier this week, had reached 25 — devastating for the affected families but hardly rising to the “if it bleeds, it leads” mantra of the news business.

Fulton, whose group connects logistics resources with disaster relief groups, reminded FreightWaves in an interview Wednesday that Laura did not hit big commerce centers like New Orleans or Houston. Oil refining, the largest industry in the hard-hit 60-mile stretch between Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Beaumont, Texas, came through unscathed because Laura at the last moment veered to the east and away from the heart of the refinery network. National or regional supply chains were not impacted because the area was not a supply chain hub. Damaged water systems have mostly been repaired. Interstate 10, the region’s main thoroughfare, was cleared relatively quickly. Grocery stores and other retail establishments, for the most part, reopened within 48 hours after the storm left the area and headed north.

Laura “was a disaster for individuals and local communities. It wasn’t a national catastrophe,” Fulton said.

Therein lies the irony, Fulton said. Laura was a force of nature when it made landfall, and it wreaked enormous havoc on the areas she came in contact with. Yet since the storm fell off the national media radar screen so quickly, it was no longer top of mind for the millions who might make cash donations to help relief groups perform what is, and what will be for some time, critical recovery work. 

Not many storms stand the test of time. Names like Katrina, Sandy, Camille, Harvey and Andrew are burnt in the public consciousness for years or even decades. Most, however, just burn out. Even the catastrophic 2009 earthquake in Haiti, which many regard as the worst natural disaster of the past 50 years because it laid waste to an already deeply-impoverished country, has largely faded from view. 

Without consistent media coverage, people move on, forget, and stop donating. In the case of Laura, without adequate cash donations, nonprofit relief organizations will begin wondering how long they can sustain their people in the field without money for food, lodging and other expenses, Fulton said. “We are not getting any press about this,” she said.

A parallel to Laura was Hurricane Rita, which hit the same area in 2005 less than a month after Hurricane Katrina. Katrina, a monster by any metric, received massive press coverage. Rita received relatively little attention because it arrived right on the heels of Katrina. Rita, unlike Laura, caused serious damage to the region’s energy infrastructure.

Laura was still packing heavy rain and very high winds when it reached Natchitoches, Louisiana, about 120 miles north of Lake Charles, where Fulton grew up and where her father and sister still live. Being so far inland, enduring even a scaled-back Laura’s fury was unprecedented for both of them, Fulton said.

From a financial, physical and emotional perspective, it will take years to return the impacted Gulf area to normal, according to Fulton. Damages have been initially estimated at $8 to $12 billion. Homes and commercial structures were snapped like toothpicks. About 125,000 residents in the Lake Charles-Beaumont-Port Arthur corridor, as well as in Cameron Township which abuts the Gulf south of Lake Charles, remain without power. Five huge energy transmission lines sustained such severe damage that 800 flatbed deliveries have been made to bring in needed repair equipment. More than 22,000 people are living in hotel rooms that have been turned into shelters. 

The heat and humidity, normally stifling this time of year in Louisiana and Texas, isn’t helping. Temperatures have been in the low 90s with near 70% humidity day after day.

Though the unprecedented storm surges never materialized, Laura did spawn an 18-foot crest in very isolated pockets, Fulton said, based on intelligence she received from one of her sources at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).

The novel coronavirus has not gone away, though the decision by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to rent thousands of hotel rooms in 45 locations across Louisiana and Texas has allowed folks to social distance and remain relatively safe under the circumstances. Under normal conditions, people would be clustered in school gymnasiums or similar facilities, Fulton said.

For now, ALAN is coordinating the movements of heavy tarps, boxes and other supplies that will help families and communities get back on their feet. Fulton’s best friend, who lives in Lake Charles, miraculously sustained just minor damage to her home, she said. She remembers crying tears of relief and happiness that her friend was one of the lucky ones.

(Editor’s note: An earlier version referred to Haiti as a “company.” The reference has since been changed)

Mark Solomon

Formerly the Executive Editor at DC Velocity, Mark Solomon joined FreightWaves as Managing Editor of Freight Markets. Solomon began his journalistic career in 1982 at Traffic World magazine, ran his own public relations firm (Media Based Solutions) from 1994 to 2008, and has been at DC Velocity since then. Over the course of his career, Solomon has covered nearly the whole gamut of the transportation and logistics industry, including trucking, railroads, maritime, 3PLs, and regulatory issues. Solomon witnessed and narrated the rise of Amazon and XPO Logistics and the shift of the U.S. Postal Service from a mail-focused service to parcel, as well as the exponential, e-commerce-driven growth of warehouse square footage and omnichannel fulfillment.