On Monday night, the temperature in Lake Charles, Louisiana dipped to 14 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-10 degrees Celsius), more than 30 degrees Fahrenheit (16.7 degrees Celsius) below average. Hours later, just before the sun rose on Tuesday morning, the city’s power supply abruptly shut off, taking the six local water plants offline with it. When residents woke up, some found themselves cold and in the dark, their water pressure low if working at all.
Similar experiences have been reported across the central and southern U.S. this week as a historic cold snap revealed significant infrastructure issues. Texas in particular made headlines as it plunged into a week-long emergency—and, according to ERCOT officials, was just “seconds and minutes” away from a months-long one. Areas outside the state have received less attention, though the unprecedented cold has created similar issues.
For residents in Lake Charles, these conditions have presented particularly acute challenges, impacting a population that has been battered by extreme weather over the past six months. Shouldering the weight of compounding climate crises, locals are struggling to keep up with each new disaster, let alone prepare for future ones. And, waking up once again in the cold and in the dark, they feel forgotten.
In August 2020, the city was struck by Hurricane Laura, which rapidly intensified before making landfall as one of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit the country. It wreaked havoc in the city, damaging buildings, downing powerlines, and sparking a chemical plant fire. Less than two month later, Hurricane Delta swept through. While it was a Category 2 compared to Laura’s Category 4, it struck a city still early in its recovery efforts, raining down on tarped roofs and residents who had already spent sweltering weeks without power.
And now, Lake Charles is capping off a week that started with freezing temperatures and thundersnow with continuing utility outages. Structures repaired after the hurricanes have been damaged once again, and the debris that remained has iced over. On her third day without water and power, resident Cherrelle King expressed her frustration.
“The hurricanes did quite a number on our family home,” King said. Her family fled to Texas at the time, paying for hotel rooms and other necessities until their shared savings ran low. When they returned to Lake Charles, they spent weeks without electricity.
“Just when things were getting back to normal, here comes this winter storm that left us without any water or electricity for the past few days,” she said.
While the majority of Lake Charles residents have had their power restored, water pressure issues remain widespread. The city has identified several hundred water breaks in uninhabited buildings and estimates there are hundreds more, with Mayor Hunter attributing the large number of abandoned structures to last year’s hurricanes. As those are being addressed, residents have been instructed to turn off their taps and boil water when needed. Mayor Hunter said he is hopeful this problem can be solved over the weekend, if residents observe those requests.
For Karli Hale, that advice isn’t exactly practical. The Lake Charles native considers herself one of the “lucky ones” since she was able to move back into her home after the hurricanes. But the back half of her house was badly damaged, including the kitchen, which was gutted “down to the studs.” She was denied Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance and has been in negotiations with her insurance company for months, leaving some of her repairs in limbo. When the temperatures dropped earlier this week, her best defense was sectioning off the unfinished portion of the house with a blue tarp, hung up like a makeshift wall to block out the draft.
“I didn’t expect to have no walls and no ceilings while it’s 18 degrees outside,” Hale said.
Without a kitchen or a stove, she can’t boil water, and for awhile, her pipes were frozen anyway. She went searching Wednesday for bottled water, which she said has become hard to find, much like it did in the aftermath of the hurricanes. Mayor Hunter said the city is working with the state and local nonprofits to bring in and distribute more water, but residents reported those giveaways ran out quickly. The water issue is also impacting institutions in the area, causing medical facilities to limit services, including canceling elective surgeries and procedures. Municipal buildings have been shuttered, and so have schools.
Erin Shoumaker, a Lake Charles mother of three young children, said the uncertainty of when this latest disaster will end has left her exhausted.
“I let my mind consider how long this water situation might last and how long school might be closed, and I think we literally cannot make it through weeks of boil advisories and school closures again,” she said, adding, “And we’ve been some of the lucky ones.”
The Calcasieu Parish School Board posted on Facebook that some of the temporary repairs made to its schools following Hurricane Laura and Hurricane Delta have now been damaged by the winter weather. Shoumaker, who temporarily enrolled her students in a Texas school while displaced for about three weeks, said the experience reminds her of what it was like when she moved back in mid-September. Her kids were taking virtual classes, and she waited eagerly each week to see if their school would reopen for in-person learning, only to face another wave of closures around the second hurricane. They didn’t end up making it into classrooms until mid-October.
“Four times in the last 12 months, life in our community has come to an abrupt and devastating halt,” she said, including the initial impact of covid-19. “The trauma of it all is too much for some and is going to bear out over the years to come.”
Kristen Gonzalez, a harm reduction coordinator for the non-profit organization Southwest Louisiana Area Health Education Center, said she’s already seeing the mental health repercussions of the past year, noting an observed spike in drug use and overdoses in her fieldwork.
“We are still so vulnerable,” she said. “I think that we’re still at a place where we’re trying to figure out what that recovery even looks.”
A few days before the cold weather moved in, Gonzalez said she worked with Water’s Edge Lake Charles, a local church, to distribute clothing, food, heaters, and other items to those in need. She said the top request was a place to shelter from the storm, pointing to rise in homelessness since the hurricanes. The conditions this week and her own personal experience with the winter weather kept her from doing outreach in recent days, which she admitted was weighing on her conscience.
“It doesn’t leave my mind, I keep thinking, you know, I know people are cold, I know all of their clothes are wet,” she said. “They are really, really dependent upon what we do.”
Gonzalez expressed sympathy and solidarity with residents in Texas, while also allowing for some disappointment that their neighbors have dominated the news coverage this week.
“I just wonder, at what point does southwest Louisiana get the spotlight? At what point do people realize that we’re still not OK?” she questioned.
Hale offered a similar sentiment.
“It’s unreal, and I feel very bad for Texas,” she said. But, at the same time: “We can’t catch a break.”
While the city did receive national media attention in the aftermath of the hurricanes, with features everywhere from the New York Times and on Good Morning America, its plight was up against the pandemic and election to make headline news. There were also a record-breaking number of multibillion-dollar disasters to contend with, from the wildfires in the West to the derecho in Iowa, both of which took place in the same time period as the hurricanes. That’s led to disaster fatigue as relief organizations, volunteers, and the nation’s attention span itself have all been uniquely strained by the layered crises.
Hale said it’s become a popular joke among locals to refer to themselves as contestants in the series Survivor, competing in a season they never actually wanted to be in and are more than ready to see wrap. The humor nods not only to the feeling that they’ve been abandoned, but also that they are largely without the tools needed to rebuild, let alone deal with the compounding impacts. In the Rolling Stone last year, climate justice writer Mary Heglar said we’re in an age of “crisis conglomeration,” and the disasters we’re seeing are a myriad of interconnected issues that have become impossible to untangle. That is how a cold snap becomes an episode in a seemingly unending season of Survivor—but the stakes are much higher.
On Thursday evening, President Biden approved a request for a federal emergency declaration for Louisiana. According to Mayor Hunter, Lake Charles has experienced 10 federal disasters in the past 25 years. Four of those have happened within the last year.
Hurricane climatologist Jill Trepanier from Louisiana State University said that this doesn’t necessarily mean the city should expect similarly devastating hurricanes and winters moving forward, but that these events point to some larger trends being observed due to climate change. Rapidly intensifying storms like Laura are becoming more common, a phenomenon Trepanier has observed in her own research. She found that storms are now reaching their peak intensities closer to the Gulf Coast, which is of particular concern since the area is a petrochemical hub. And, as Hurricane Laura proved, the infrastructure is not prepared for these worsening storms.
While it’s an area of active research, extreme cold snaps may also have ties to climate change as the Arctic rapidly warms, destabilizing the jet stream that normally traps the coldest air on Earth up there. On their own, these trends are problematic, but more worrisome is the shortening windows between extreme weather.
“In the West, you’re seeing mudslides in places that just had forest fires not long ago,” Dr. Trepanier explained. “Similarly, you’ll see these ice outbreaks not long after a hurricane season.”
To make the most of those windows, she believes we’re going to have to not only respond quicker to these disasters when they take place but also change our approach to preparing for them. It’s about learning to adapt to these events rather than trying in vain to prevent them from occurring—in other words, using the science we have to plan for the future it predicts. Because the hurricanes are going to keep happening in Louisiana. The ice storms might, too. The only thing we have the power to change is how we use that knowledge to move forward.
Colleen Hagerty is a multimedia journalist covering communities impacted by disasters.