How Do You Promote a City Ravaged by Hurricanes?
As a 24 year old city public relations representative, Kathryn Shea eats, sleeps and breathes Duncan Lake Charles, La.
The working class town, home to about 80,000 people and inland from the Gulf of Mexico, is the big city where she grew up and where she spent Thanksgiving with her family. She rented her first house in Lake Charles. She met her boyfriend Ryan Beeson at the Panorama Music House downtown. She can tell you the best places to get a bum boy, baby alligator, or crab off dry land.
But Ms. Duncan’s determination to stay in town has been shaken by the string of hurricanes that devastated the town and much of the surrounding area that year. Thousands of residents remain displaced, and help – in the form of donations and volunteers – has been difficult to come by as the whole country grapples with coronavirus outbreaks and has been distracted from politics. (The Mayor, Nic Hunter, has been working to raise awareness of the state of his city. He appeared on CNN, Fox News and NPR and told the audience, “I beg, I ask Americans not to forget Lake Charles . ”)
Ms. Duncan wonders how she will continue to promote the place she loves.
“The reality is, what product do we have to put up?” She said. “Which event? What is open? We know that by the end of the year all of our hotels will be staffed with supply workers and first aiders. And then sooner or later with families who have been evicted.”
It has also made her think about her own future. (Lake Charles is not on the coast, but it is still affected by frequent storms, a changing coastline, and a rise in sea levels.)
“You are starting to think what does your house look like?” Mrs. Duncan said. “What is your job like? What will everything look like that I do and promote professionally? “
Hurricanes one and two
Before the storms, Ms. Duncan’s job was to tell non-state writers and reporters stories about Lake Charles and southwest Louisiana, including the Creole Nature Trail, a scenic back road that allows visitors to walk through tall grass and alligator habitats in Louisiana. and Adventure Point, an attraction along the way where kids can put on real hunting gear and smell spices used in Louisiana cuisine.
“We were still telling stories during Covid-19,” she said, “but we couldn’t take anyone in because we really can’t do it safely.” When Hurricane Laura hit, her bosses “were primarily concerned with our well-being and health”.
On August 25, the night Laura landed, Mr. Beeson and Mrs. Duncan were at Mrs. Duncan’s mother’s home in Crowley, La., A town about a quarter the size of Lake Charles and about an hour’s drive away .
Mr. Beeson woke Mrs. Duncan in the middle of the night. “I know you don’t want to see this, but I think you should know what’s going on,” he said, handing Ms. Duncan’s cell phone. It revealed a photo of the Panorama Music House that was completely destroyed.
“It had literally just fallen,” said Ms. Duncan. “Like a waterfall.”
The owners were in the process of building a small museum on the top floor dedicated to the musical history of Lake Charles, which Ms. Duncan would be happy to recommend to visitors. (Country musician Lucinda Williams, for example, was born and raised nearby and named one of her most famous songs after the city.)
“I just sat there and sobbed,” said Ms. Duncan. “Mourning what could be lost.”
That hurricane, a category four storm, displaced more than 6,000 residents of Lake Charles. Wind damage tore small buildings and large stores like Best Buy and Hobby Lobby to pieces, and tens of thousands of people were without electricity for weeks.
Ms. Duncan’s house survived with minimal damage, but her office had to be gutted. Your neighbor was far worse. “She had ceiling damage so core her side,” she said. “She can’t live there. And she’s a nurse. “
Then, in October, Hurricane Delta turned off for Lake Charles. Ms. Duncan re-entered her home and kept her television set in her laundry room along with framed photos of her late father.
A changing state
Ms. Duncan’s family has lived in this region of Louisiana for generations and has roots that go back to the original group of Cajuns who were banned from Acadia, Canada by the British in the 18th century.
Physically, the state has changed a lot since then. In 2014, the map was redrawn to accommodate a shrinking coastline, and storms are more frequent – and more deadly – than ever. But Mrs. Duncan is determined to ride it out.
“We can do better,” she said. “Through economic development and improvement of our infrastructure, a cleaner environment and better transport options. You can’t do all of these great things if you don’t stay and work on them every day. “
“I’m a very forward-thinking person,” said Ms. Duncan, who was sitting in her cave in Lake Charles under a framed, hand-drawn map of the state of Louisiana. “I always plan for the next five years.”
Obviously, Ms. Duncan may want to move to another city at some point. But Lake Charles is her home, she said. And leaving never felt as tempting as staying.
“If I were moving anywhere with a million people it would be almost meaningless trying to make a difference,” she said. “But if I can stay here and be resilient and live in a city of 80,000 people, where most of them think and act alike, and I’m a millennial who probably doesn’t have the same thoughts and experiences as those around me. I can make a difference. “
“If I go,” she added, “who will stay then? Who will that person be? “
October was a different story. When Hurricane Delta landed on Lake Charles, she and Mr. Beeson evacuated again, this time to San Antonio to stay with friends. With traffic, the usually five-hour drive was 12. “To be completely honest, I wanted to move,” said Ms. Duncan. “I was frustrated. I was angry that this continued. “
But after the storm, Ms. Duncan was overwhelmed with emotion as she saw the work her community had done together to rebuild. It’s exciting to be a part of it, she said. There is a Facebook group for their neighborhood where people check in each other to make sure they all have what they need.
“Even our postwoman is in the group,” said Ms. Duncan, “and two days after Laura she announced that she was on her way home and that she would drop the mail when she got there.”
It made Ms. Duncan reconsider her frustration. “I thought, OK, maybe I need to relax and stay here a little longer,” she said, adding that there was a reason she was here.
Back at the satellite office, Ms. Duncan and her team are working on budgeting for the next fiscal year and trying to come up with a plan to sell Lake Charles again. It’s about rebuilding, but better rebuilding, and taking advantage of the new things that could emerge from this dark period in the city’s history.
“There can be new restaurants and new attractions that come out of it,” she said. “There is some kind of unhappy beauty that could result from it. Maybe the inside of one of our attractions has been gutted, and that sucks, but maybe they have a chance to reinvent themselves. “
Seeing Lake Charles come together after two hurricanes only made the decision easier. “It’s more fulfilling now, to be sure,” she said. “It confirms why I chose to stay here. Yes, everyone’s life is in chaos right now. But we’re still checking each other in and making sure we’re fine. We care about our neighbors even in the midst of our own struggles. “
Something about the fact that there are many obstacles ahead of us makes Ms. Duncan more dedicated to the place. “If I went, I would be a different environment and all that,” she said. “But when I stay, I constantly challenge myself. It’s that constant, daily challenge of thinking. What can I do better? How can I improve this place? How can I better leave it for the next generation? “