As It Happens·Q&A

Louisiana man says his city 'looks like a bomb went off' after Hurricane Laura

Hurricane Laura ripped through the city of Lake Charles, La., and left it "unlivable," says a longtime resident.

John O'Donnell returns to Lake Charles to survey the damage, says city has been rendered 'unlivable'

Homes and other buildings in Lake Charles, La., that were struck by Hurricane Laura on Thursday. (Bill Feig/The Advocate/The Associated Press)

Read Story Transcript

Longtime Lake Charles, La., resident John O'Donnell has one message for his neighbours who fled Hurricane Laura: "Do not come back right now."

O'Donnell was able to get out of dodge with his family before Hurricane Laura hit in the early-morning hours of Thursday. He later returned to survey the damage, take some insurance photos and help his neighbours.

But he says he won't be staying long. The roof has been partially ripped from his home, and everything inside is water-damaged. Even in most of the buildings that remain standing, there's no electricity or running water.

At least 11 people were killed as Hurricane Laura tore through Louisiana and Texas on Thursday with winds of 240 kilometres an hour. Before making landfall in the U.S., the hurricane killed nearly two dozen people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

O'Donnell spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann on Friday. Here is part of their conversation. 

What does your city, Lake Charles, look like today?

It's a disaster zone. I mean, for sure. We're looking at catastrophic damage. There are trees down everywhere. I think we've maybe lost 50 per cent of our area's trees. I don't think there's a single structure here that's not damaged in some way. Power lines in the street. Most streets are impassable. I know that we're working hard to clear the wood out of the streets so that we can we can start driving around. But it looks bad. It looks like a bomb went off.

You evacuated to Baton Rouge for the worst of the hurricane and then made your way home early yesterday. What was it like to come back and see the city in this state?

This is my city that I love very much. This is my home. And it was extremely emotional and very, very difficult to see it in the state that it was in. I'm getting a little emotional talking about it now.

Hurricane Rita in 2005 was bad, and that completely devastated the city as well. This seemed worse. This looks worse. And that was a hard shock for me.

What kind of preparations were you able to make before you got out of there?

We boarded up the windows and we sandbagged the door because we heard that the storm surge was going to be pretty bad, and just did everything that we could. We secured everything that was outside in the backyard so that it didn't blow around. 

Honestly, none of it really made a difference. I'm not sure any of that really would have mattered because of the severity of this storm.

John O'Donnell as he flees his home in Lake Charles. (John O'Donnell/Facebook)

I understand you were also helping some other folks leave Lake Charles. Some, though, said they were not going. Why not?

This is a question that I keep having to answer, and I've been thinking about a lot.

The majority of the people that stayed, stayed because they didn't have any other option. They were ... elderly and unable to evacuate. They were disabled. We have a high instance of poverty in our area, and evacuating can be expensive, and some people just couldn't afford to do it. 

We also had a lot of people stay because the demographics of Lake Charles have really changed a lot since the last major storm in 2005. We have a lot of people, a lot of new people here, that might not be from Louisiana or might be too young to remember how bad Hurricane Rita was.

And what we tried to do before the storm is kind of impart to them some of that oral history of what we lived through during that time to really put the fear of God in them about what was coming. And I think that is what really made a big difference, is just telling people those stories of those past storms.

But, you know, when you go a couple of years without having one of these, people get really complacent.

Smoke rises from a burning chemical plant in Lake Charles in Laura's wake. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

And yet you have officials having described this one as "unsurvivable." So I'm just wondering what it's like for you, you know, leaving the area, knowing that there are people left behind who are going to try and ride it out.

I don't have the personality type that very easily leaves a situation that I feel is not resolved. And I was incredibly emotional on the drive out.

It was a tough drive. It was a tough drive. 

I know you've had a chance now to speak to some of those neighbours who stayed. What kind of things are they telling you?

They're telling me that it was the longest, most traumatic night of their life and that they will never ride out another storm for the rest of their days.

The big thing that people are telling me is, you know, it hit at night. It was like midnight when the eye of the storm came ashore. And it was so dark. But it's the sound of the trees cracking and the power lines coming down and, you know, the roofs getting ripped off, just that roar of destruction, is what stuck with most of my neighbours. That's the one common theme that everybody keeps talking about is the noise.

Latasha Myles and Howard Anderson stand in their Lake Charles living room where they were sitting when the roof blew off around 2:30 a.m. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

That sounds absolutely terrifying. You mentioned that, you know, you're back looking at things, thinking about the cleanup. What does that mean for you today?

Today I am helping friends and neighbours. I've got several friends who lost everything. You know, the roofs of their apartment were ripped off or, you know, the walls of their houses have caved in. And we just were going in with trash bags and taking what they have left and just trying to salvage what we can.

For my own home, it's pouring down rain here today as well, which compounds the situation, because what wasn't wet is now wet.

And so I'm working with friends and neighbours to get these blue tarps up so that we can try to dry things out.

Where are you going to stay now?

I have an apartment here that was relatively undamaged. It doesn't have any power or air conditioning or running water. And from what I'm told, it's going to be a while before we have any of those things.

And if anybody from Lake Charles is listening to this: Do not come back right now. This city is unlivable at the moment. Come back, look at your property and then leave again. But do not come here and stay.

Tonight ... I'll probably pull back into .... Beaumont, Texas, where I've got some cell service, I can get out some photos to my insurance adjuster, use the internet, contact family members and then come back and try to help with recovery operations in the morning.

But, yeah, I'm really looking forward to a nice shower and a toilet that flushes.

A hurricane-ravaged church in Lake Charles. (Bill Feig/The Advocate/The Associated Press)

What are you seeing of your community today as as people try to sort of take all of this in?

Everybody has everybody else's back. Strangers are helping clear trees from neighbours' yards. You know, people are pitching in to help clear the roadways, even though, you know, there are crews here to help clear the trees out of the roadways. 

One of the things that makes this place so special is the people and that spirit of resilience and togetherness. You know, we have a lot of problems here. But when things hit the fan, people really bind together and help each other out and have each other's back. And so I think right now we really, really see the best of my city in the worst of the time.

For those of us who don't live in hurricane zones, I think it's sometimes hard to comprehend how people live through these over and over again and why they stay. What do you say to that?

It's the people. You stay for your neighbours. I mean, yes, like, we live in an area that is prone to hurricane strikes. However, we live in an area that has this incredible mixture of culture and music, and it's not like anywhere else in the world.

It's not home anywhere else. And this is home. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now