Barely a month had passed since my last trip to New Orleans, which took me east instead of west as I pursued Hurricane Sally in Louisiana. And 2½ weeks before that, I was in far western Louisiana, covering Hurricane Laura from the back of a mobile Doppler radar truck atop a bridge on the Texas border.
Laura’s Category 4 landfall and assault on Lake Charles, La., proved the most vicious to strike the Bayou State since 1856. Lake Charles, home to 78,000 people, bore the brunt of the buzz saw storm’s eyewall, which brought tornado-like 130 to 140 mph wind speeds and widespread damage and destruction.
On Thursday, it was becoming increasingly clear that Lake Charles would again find itself in the crosshairs of a serious hurricane, ripping off the community’s Band-Aid and reopening wounds that were only beginning to heal.
Driving west to Lake Charles on Interstate 10 on Thursday night, it became clear just how much the city had suffered barely five weeks previously. A 40-mile backup on the highway marked residents anxiously fleeing the incoming storm; some people reported sitting in traffic for hours, only to make it three or four miles. After a 90-minute detour, I made it to my hotel — but not before driving through the streets of Lake Charles and adjacent Sulphur.
A sea of blue tarps lay sprawled out across the somnolent, partially evacuated landscape, half of the homes still awaiting roof repairs following Hurricane Laura. Mounds of rubble lined the streets, while missing road signs made some intersections treacherous. Collapsed buildings could be seen on the side of the road. And in less than 24 hours, all that debris would become potentially lethal projectiles, with winds over 90 mph once again overspreading the beleaguered community.
By daybreak Friday morning, rain was already falling; winds were light but occasionally stirred, tugging on one’s shirt to as if to ask a question. I drove east to Lake Charles, where power crews were lined up in parking lots, ready for post-storm repairs.
Over the next few hours, the rain began falling in sheets, occasionally accompanied by stout gusts of 40 to 50 mph. On radar, the eyewall churned ever closer, and I knew I had to make a key decision as to where I would position. Traditionally, the eastern edge of an eyewall is more intense, but radar suggested Delta’s western eyewall was more primed. I decided to head east to Lake Arthur, about 45 minutes away, gambling that the then-disheveled eyewall would “fill in” again on the east side.
I had already scoped out Lake Arthur on topographic maps and Google, knowing it would be safe from surge and offer an unobstructed view of whatever Delta delivered. I arrived shortly after 4 p.m.; it seemed like a typical rainy, breezy day, no different than during the routine fall storms I experienced growing up in New England. But the eyewall was still 45 minutes to my south, and radar revealed it was beginning to reform.
I decided to park at the edge of an intersection along a row of houses that flanked a wide open field. That would afford a lengthy fetch of wind with few obstacles to slow it down, while also providing some context to illustrate the ferocious gusts’ power. Frame by frame, radar data showed the oranges and reds of the eyewall pinwheeling closer. And then it hit.
Abruptly, a 50 mph gust arrived. Then a 60 mph gust. And before long, the winds were 50 to 60 mph sustained, the scene transforming from a relatively pedestrian breeze to a veritable windstorm in two minutes’ time. My rental vehicle was rocking back-and-forth, occasionally pummeled by gusts in the 70 to 80 mph range.
The visibility dropped to near 200 feet as leaves, twigs and branches raced by. The strong winds coupled with three inch per hour rainfall rates to pressure wash anything caught outside. Periodic gusts of 90 to 100 mph screamed through the trees, a shrill shriek replacing what an hour earlier had been a windy whistle through power lines. I began driving 500 feet up the road to a clearing.
Ahead of me, a downed power pole blocked my path, the reclining pole bouncing up and down as gusts continued to shake it. But then the adjacent pole began to topple, as did the next. I thrust the vehicle in reverse and backed up at 30 mph, years of storm-chase driving paying off as I elude the unfolding peril.
Meanwhile, I noticed the fields abutting the roadway had flooded, up to half a foot of water in people’s yards. The unrelenting winds were whipping up angry waves in what should have been a dry neighborhood.
After an hour and a half, the rain let up, as did the wind — or so I thought. Gusts relaxed to around 30 mph, and for the first time since entering the eyewall, I could hear something other than the wind. But the lull didn’t last for long. Another burst of 80 to 90 mph gusts arrived, lasting a minute or two. Then back down to 30 or 40 mph. The back-and-forth happened for the next hour or so as mesovortices, or smaller eddies of wind that line the ribbed inner eyewall, rotated through.
Only once darkness settled in did the winds abate. The eye never really brought about calm winds but rather a gentle 5 to 10 mph breeze as drizzle fell. I seized the opportunity to try to get east to Baton Rouge or New Orleans, but the roads were all but impassible.
Thrice I dodged 15-foot chunks of sheet metal on the roadway, the landscape and traffic lights dark due to the severe electricity. My first route was blocked by a fallen tree, and my second option by a mangling of trees and wires. Plans C, D and E didn’t work either: flooding, a tree and more wires.
I took a 15-mile detour, traveling slowly to avoid pockets of flooding or more trees. I tried to prop up a railroad crossing gate that had become unhinged and fallen during the storm.
After a tense 90 minutes, I arrived onto Interstate 10 — where fallen trees littered the right lane. Winds on the south side of the eye returned but much tamer than before: 40 to 50 mph. Periodic flickers of power flashes illuminated the sky in blue where damaged electrical lines arced. Otherwise, it was pitch black.
Near Crowley, a tractor trailer lay flipped in a ditch; rescuers had already cleared the vehicle, and I continued on my way east, arriving in New Orleans shortly after midnight.
As a meteorologist, the power of the atmosphere fascinates. But as a human, it devastates. Lake Charles and surrounding communities in southwestern Louisiana have been dealt an extremely harsh assortment of circumstances this hurricane season. And unfortunately, it may take months or even years to fully recover.