One of the most ironic things about being a meteorologist... is often times, we never get to experience the storm because we're stuck inside the studio covering it from the green screen. (And rightfully so, all of our computers, forecast technology, etc. are all in-house... but the real lessons are learned out in the field.)
This past week, I was asked by my bosses to go cover Hurricane Delta expected to make landfall in southwest Louisiana on Friday. I had never covered a hurricane in-person before... but we were strapped for staffing with our hurricane expert/meteorologist on vacation & our Texas bureau reporters tied up with a political debate. So I was next on the roster - and I jumped at the opportunity.
Prepping for Departure
I got the call Wednesday afternoon... and once the logistics were worked out & the shock faded, I hopped in the car and drove straight to Cabela's for some gear. Mentally, I was ready to go... but I could not be more unprepared to go stand out in a hurricane with what I had to wear. The only 'waterproof' wardrobe I had consisted of a KXAN rain jacket, cheetah-print rain boots & snow pants. (Not sure how I survived 4 monsoon seasons in NM without ever needing rain gear, but that reality hit hard when looking at the lack of options in my closet.)
I ended up buying a pair of waders at Cabela's. I was going to wear whatever it took to not get soaked (the idea of water getting in my boots and having to stand in wet socks for +24 hours... would make for a long, miserable day). So I spent the $90 on waders. And looking back - this was probably the most well-spent $90 of my entire life.
I was paired up with one of our photojournalists (Todd) who had been through many hurricanes prior, which honestly, made me feel so much better about the situation. We left KXAN around 1PM Thursday and were off to Lake Charles, Louisiana where we planned to ride out the storm.
NOTE: It's important to know that Lake Charles was hit by Hurricane Laura (Category 4) just 6 weeks prior. We knew this... and had figured there would be some damage leftover... but we had NO idea just how bad it would be. (More to come on this later.)
Because of the debate back in Austin, those who usually help with booking hotel rooms when covering a story out-of-town were not available. So I was tasked with finding us a place to stay.
When I tell you I called every hotel in Lake Charles... I mean I called EVERY FREAKIN' HOTEL in the southwest corner of the state. There was either no one answering or no vacancy. It seemed almost impossible to find a room (we called phone numbers, tried hotel booking websites, etc.) Thinking the rooms were just booked up with evacuees, we finally found a hotel 10 miles outside of Lake Charles with limited availability. We booked two rooms for two nights... only to get a call back about a booking error on their end that resulted in us having to stay in one room with a King-size bed & a pull-out sofa. At this point, we were desperate & thought "good enough".
Driving into Louisiana was one of the eeriest feelings. The ~30 miles from the LA/TX state line to Lake Charles was stand-still traffic headed westbound. Everyone was fleeing. Our KXAN station car was one of only a handful headed east into Lake Charles. It almost felt like one of those apocalyptic movies. Although we were encouraged to see so many people heeding the warnings... it started to set in that "yea, there's something big comin' this way".
no food frenzy
Once reaching Sulpur, Louisiana, we stopped by the hotel (which had visible damage from Laura) to grab our keys before heading to Lake Charles to get video and set up for our 9PM & 10PM live shots.
Every restaurant, food joint and fast food stop was closed, primarily because of damage. Laura had destroyed the McDonalds, Taco Bell, Raising Canes, Checkers, any & every food-related business in the area. Even the Waffle House was closed... and if you know anything about Waffle House, you know they're known for staying open during & after a natural disaster. But this Waffle House was so badly beaten, the only letter left hanging on its sign was the "O". Todd and I started to get concerned... as the realization of not having any food for the next 2 days started to creep in. We had snacks... but no meals. We made a quick stop at a "24 hour gas station" as a desperate attempt... only to have the owner lock the door in our face when standing out front yelling "WE'RE CLOSED". It was 6:15PM.
Later that night, we ended up finding another gas station that was still open. It was very much picked over with only spicy chips, pre-packaged desserts & beer left. We ended up picking up a few things (for me, it was a blueberry muffin, Hot Cheetos popcorn & two 5-hour energy drinks)... and that was what lasted us for the trip.
laura's footprint in lake charles
The realness of the situation smacked us in the face once we drove into town. Lake Charles, the 5th-biggest city in Louisiana, was absolutely decimated. Almost every building in the entire city had sustained damage from Hurricane Laura. There were boarded windows on every business & home, piles of debris lined the streets, downed signed, and broken trees. Quite honestly, it looked like a war zone. Not only was the entire town destroyed but there was also no people around. It was an absolute ghost town. And perhaps the scariest feelings... Hurricane Delta was still +100 miles off the coast. This was what was left by Laura... and really, it was like that storm never left.
We ended up finding a street with a couple of homeowners around. We talked with one, Brian, who was incredibly kind and hospitable to us. He gave us a tour of his home (which was significantly damaged by Laura) and gave us a great, heart-felt interview. We used him in our 9PM & 10PM live shots that night. Once Todd & I knocked those out, we headed back to the hotel to gear up for the big show the next day --> landfall.
day of landfall
Friday was one of the longest, blurriest days of my career. It was a relatively slow morning as we feasted on the hotel's continental breakfast (finally- REAL FOOD) followed by driving around town to grab video. Really, the day didn't start moving until about noontime... from which it went 0 to 100.
We posted up in a badly hit neighborhood just south of the downtown area. My first live hit was with KXAN at 4:30PM... and from there, it was back-to-back live shots for our Texas sister stations. As we did more hits, the rain got harder and the wind got nastier. It was a fight both mentally & physically,.. trying to focus on what was I was saying while also trying to keep balance in 3"-4" of water & 50-90mph winds. Every time I thought "okay, it's starting to let up"... we would get hit by another hurricane-force wind gust that would absolutely destroy me. (Think trying to walk through one of the drive-thru car washes while having a normal conversation with someone. Rain flying into your sleeves and hood, spitting out water as you try to talk with your mouth as tightly closed as possible. Brutal.)
Now some people had asked "weren't you afraid?" or "wasn't it scary?" And I honestly tell you, I really didn't have time to be scared in the moment. I was too focused on making sure I hit my live shots and was calling the right phone numbers at the right times and tossing back to the right anchors, etc. There was so much going through my brain, I didn't have a whole lot of time to think about... "well what if this power pole comes down in front me?"
But that's where Todd comes in. And this guy is GOD-SENT. He was my eyes & ears while I was out there... keeping an eye on what was around me, what could be flying towards me or coming up behind me. He was truly my protector while I was out in the street getting beat down by the rain and wind. I relied on him to tell me if anything was looking sketchy, wobbly or dangerous. And outside of a few blown transformers down the street, we were okay. (And I credit him for keeping us safe.)
It was a solid 9 hours of relentless wind and rain out there in that neighborhood. At one point, we got in the car and attempted to make our way back towards the hotel.... but we ran into some flooded roadways and chose not to put ourselves in a hairy situation. So we drove back to the neighborhood we were at and just committed to staying until it was safe.
Over the entirety of the day, we maybe saw 5 trucks total? There was NO ONE left in this town... and rightfully so. But towards the end of our 10PM live shot, we saw a truck drive by the other end of the street (where the transformers blew) that didn't seem to be driving through any major flooded roadway. So after the newscast ended, we drove in the direction we had seen the truck and slowly made our way around debris back to the interstate. Initially, we had planned to take I-10 but a flipped over semi meant we needed to find another way. This resulted in having to drive back through town (and once again, navigating around all the debris we had just passed) back to I-210.
After having fought Mother Nature for most of the day, Todd and I crashed once we got back to the hotel. Luckily, there didn't seem to be any more damage than what was there when we left. But after a quick shower to scrub off the ocean water, it was lights out. (And looking back, I'm so grateful I took the extra 10-minutes to stay awake for that shower as when we woke up, the hotel had lost all running water. And THAT would have made for a longgggg drive home.)
Real talk - it's not the intensity of the storm that makes coverage tough... but just the amount of time spent being uncomfortable. What I mean by that - you're going hours without real food, sitting in wet clothes in a cramped car, needing to use the restroom but not having any place to do so (I'll spare you the details... but think camping-style squat, facing into the wind/rain & total darkness. Not a highlight of the trip.) And on top of that, you're on TV, trying your best to provide good information to those back home.
I felt comfortable enough with where we were (30 miles inland) & the storm itself that I knew what I was getting into. What I was more concerned about was (1) doing a good job during coverage and, more importantly, (2) the people of Lake Charles.
This town needs help. They've needed help for the last +45 days since Laura came and took out almost everything. It's a helpless feeling having to cover a storm in an area that was left vulnerable after the last... knowing it will likely go from bad to worse for many. Yes, Delta was a weaker storm... but it didn't have to be a strong storm. These people had spent the last 6 weeks starting over... only to have Delta come onshore and force them to start that process over. It's a guilt that I can't explain. A hurt for strangers and an ache to help people you've never even met.
Selfishly, yes - I was excited to be out covering my first hurricane. But the sadness of leaving that town in the state it was in, was a hard pill to swallow.
The science is was got me in this business, but the people is why I do it. Unfortunately, there will likely be another Laura, another Delta, another Harvey. And all we can do is make sure we're prepared... and shine a light on the stories of resilience.
Pray for Lake Charles, Louisiana.