In Orange, Texas, just across the Sabine River from Louisiana, a line of cars hundreds deep snakes along a highway shoulder and into a parking lot. A local supermarket has set up an aid distribution center in the hot sun and humidity. Families are packed in their cars, waiting to get the basics: ice, water, a hot meal.
Hurricane Laura is the first major test of whether the Gulf Coast is prepared to handle two disasters at once. Coronavirus case numbers in Southwest Louisiana were already spiking at an alarming rate. Then a Category 4 hurricane came ashore.
While Laura spared Houston and New Orleans, more than 600,000 homes were in the path of the storm, which caused widespread power outages and disrupted the water system.
"It's definitely more stressful," says Tory Carter as she waits to pick up her supplies. She evacuated to Austin with her 5-year-old son and mother as the storm approached. Now she's come back to take stock of the damage and get back to her job. "It's rough staying safe when you don't have water at the moment or electricity, to try to keep everything clean," she says.
In the food line, volunteers wear face shields and ask people to keep their car windows rolled up.
"It's just kind of hard right now," says Trichee Abraham, who lost her job as a cashier recently, one of millions of Americans pushed to the brink by the financial crisis that accompanied the pandemic. Like many evacuees, she chose to ride out the storm in a hotel. She says she used up her savings to pay for the stay, and she has yet to receive any aid from the local, state or federal government.
A half-hour drive east into Louisiana, Interstate 10 is clogged with emergency vehicles and utility trucks. There are car accidents; debris and enormous downed trees block parts of the road. The city of Lake Charles, population 80,000, took a direct hit. Whole neighborhoods are decimated, trees completely uprooted, roofs of hotels and apartment complexes peeled off.
The Red Cross says it has received an unprecedented number of calls for assistance. During past storms, officials have turned gyms and stadiums into giant shelters. But with coronavirus cases rising at an alarming rate in the weeks before the hurricane, it became clear those shelters represented a new danger of their own. Far fewer shelters than normal appear to have been set up in Louisiana, and as of Sunday night, emergency officials were advising anyone who needed shelter to go to the New Orleans area, some 200 miles east of Lake Charles.
Near the airport, first responders have set up a makeshift staging area powered by generators. In nonpandemic times, their work was already challenging with the search for survivors hampered by downed power lines, falling debris and impassable roads.
"COVID brings it to a whole new level," says Michael Kimble, who is in charge of Louisiana's search and rescue teams. His crew is doing daily COVID-19 screenings and temperature checks while wearing personal protective equipment to shield themselves. Protocols are especially stringent for the teams that have come from out of state. An Orlando-based rescue team got rapid COVID-19 tests for each of its firefighters.
"Everybody tested negative," says team leader Jeremiah Plasters. "Since we're all staying together and we're using our PPE, the only way that we would get it is by someone else making contact with us."
But if they pull people out of wrecked homes into their small boats and trucks, there is no way to be sure they're not exposing themselves to COVID-19.
Louisiana officials have warned that public coronavirus testing, like so many services, has been disrupted. That means there will be limited data about how the cycle of evacuation and return may have spread the virus. While the damage from Laura's 150 mph winds revealed itself after the storm passed, the true impact of the hurricane may take weeks to assess.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Can the United States handle two disasters at once? The Gulf Coast region is finding out. Coronavirus case numbers in some communities in the path of Hurricane Laura were high when the Category 4 hurricane came ashore. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports the storm is making services even harder to get.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In Orange, Texas, just across the Sabine River from Louisiana, a line of cars hundreds deep snakes along the highway shoulder and into a parking lot. A local supermarket has set up an aid distribution center in the hot, humid afternoon.
TORY CARTER: We're just basically trying to see what we can get. As of now, we just got back from Austin today, so we're just looking at it I guess cleaning supplies. Whatever they're offering, that'll help.
SIEGLER: Tory Carter is with her 5-year-old son and mom. They evacuated to Austin as Hurricane Laura approached the Gulf Coast. They were relieved to find a hotel room during the storm. Their house is mostly OK. But there's no power or water, and she's worried about the virus and being able to keep things clean.
CARTER: It's definitely more stressful 'cause you have to be a lot more safer now. Things are easily, you know, trans (ph) - you know, you can catch it easy.
SIEGLER: Nearby, two men in face masks unload bags of ice off of an 18-wheeler. As fast as they can unload them, volunteers in face shields scoop them up and toss them into the trunks of awaiting cars. They tell folks to keep their windows rolled up as much as they can to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How you doing, guys?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible) ...Now.
SIEGLER: This is what it looks like to try to deal with two major crises at once - the pandemic and now hurricane season and that ever-present anxiety that the next storm could be even worse than Laura.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS SOUNDING)
SIEGLER: A half-hour drive east into Louisiana, Interstate 10 is jammed with emergency vehicles and utility trucks. There are car accidents. There's a powerline here or a huge tree there still blocking the road. The city of Lake Charles, population 80,000, took a direct hit. Whole neighborhoods look decimated - trees completely uprooted, roofs of hotels and apartment complexes peeled off.
Near the airport, first responders have set up a makeshift staging area powered by generators.
MICHAEL KIMBLE: COVID brings it to a whole new level, right? I mean...
SIEGLER: Michael Kimble is in charge of Louisiana's search and rescue teams.
KIMBLE: These first responders - these guys are out there beating it down all day long, going from house to house to house having to worry about where proper protection for them. And if we do come in contact with citizens that need rescuing, they probably don't have the proper PPE.
SIEGLER: Who can blame someone in total crisis for forgetting their face mask? So Kimble's teams are doing what they can - twice-a-day temperature checks and COVID screenings. The protocol is especially stringent if you're arriving from out of state. Before Jeremiah Plasters and his team of firefighters deployed from Florida, everyone got a rapid COVID test.
JEREMIAH PLASTERS: So everybody tested negative. So we're going with the fact that everybody rolling out the door to come here was negative. And since we're all staying together and we're using our PPE, the only way that we would get it is by somebody else making contact with us.
SIEGLER: And Plasters says COVID doesn't stop them from doing their job, but it's just one more threat they could encounter. From here, he'll go by military chopper then usually an inflatable raft to some of the hardest-hit coastal areas.
Now, while Laura spared the major cities, the path of the storm crossed over more than 600,000 houses. There is a lot of destruction, and there are far fewer shelters than normal due to worries about clustering too many people together and spreading the virus. The Red Cross says it's received an unprecedented number of calls for aid, owed largely to the fact that the pandemic already had people living on the brink.
TRICHEE ABRAHAM: It's just kind of hard right now. We're going to just make do with what we have. We don't have a lot of money.
SIEGLER: This is Trichee Abraham. She lost her job as a cashier during the pandemic. She used up her savings getting a hotel when she evacuated.
ABRAHAM: Money - if we could get some money to sustain us right now until they get the power and stuff back on and people can go back to work - we can't even go to work right now.
SIEGLER: And many people can't go home because they've lost everything. The nearest emergency shelters are now in the New Orleans area, a 200-mile drive east.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Lake Charles, La. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.