Riding Out The Storm: Hurricane Laura
You always see the damage that Hurricanes leave behind on TV but, it was this past August where I finally saw first-hand the true power and destruction a hurricane can bring.
It had already been decided earlier in the week but, on Wednesday, August 26th I packed up about a week's worth of clothes and food and drove with one of our reporters to Lake Charles, Louisiana. At this point in time, Hurricane Luara was on a B-Line for SW Louisiana as a Category 4 storm. Outer bands were already effecting the area and we actually drove through a tornado warning on our way out west. The storm was expected to make landfall somewhere between Lake Charles and Beaumont in Texas. With the more westerly landfall predicted at the time, a huge and devastating storm surge of up to 20 feet was expected in Lake Charles. I had told the reporter to possibly be stranded in the city for days if this ended up happening.
We arrived at Lake Charles in the afternoon and went downtown. This was one of the areas that were forecasted to be inundated from storm surge later that night so it was decided to get footage and do some reporting from this location. Most of the rainbands were well to the east near Lafayette and Baton Rouge so the weather was sunny and actually pretty calm at this time.
By the evening time, we had set up at our staging/shooting location. The Golden Nugget Casino, this large building would not only be sturdy enough to get through any winds but also had enough height that if the 20ft storm surge came in, there would be higher ground to get to. Things were still pretty calm in the late afternoon and evening but conditions began to go downhill around 9 PM local time. At this point, tropical storm sustained winds and rain began to move into the area. For those that have been in tropical weather before this level of winds isn't too impressive but in this case, it was just the beginning of a very long night.
LATE WEDNESDAY NIGHT/ EARLY THURSDAY MORNING
This is when things began to go downhill; and fast, winds really began to pick up as we were experiencing the inner bands of the storm. Gusts were getting closer to hurricane-force. At this time, it was more certain that Luara had decided to take a more northerly path and we were now in the direct path of the eye. This meant the strongest winds of the storm were on their way towards us.
Winds continued to increase with gusts well above hurricane-force at this point. The rain began to have that "sideways" look to it and while reporting it was almost impossible to hear anything due to the wind and rain. Things would begin to drastically change over the next hour.
We now began our journey into the eyewall. Within a span of about 30 minutes, we were experiencing sustained hurricane-force sustained winds, and gusts at the nearby airport were being measured over 100 mph. These readings would increase to close to 130 mph gusts by 1:30. Due to the radar going down and no way to real-time verify our winds. I would assume we saw very similar speed considering our close to 6-mile proximity to the airport. The scene was unreal, the only way I could describe things was that it looked very similar to the blowback created by a jetliner on a rainy day. The rain was flying sideways and the trees were violently moving with the wind. On top of that, the roar of the wind was extremely loud. It was at this time that we decided (with the other news crews) to move inside after glass and other debris began to fly around our staging area.
Once inside, another surreal moment occurred. While winds were blasting the building outside; inside the building you could still feel a breeze moving through as it entered through any opening. The wind itself was howling outside and made a constant shrieking noise as it passed through doors and cracks. The windows (thankfully which held up) were bowing in and out as the pressure from the wind pushed them. The lights flickered on and off many times but thankfully our building kept power (I assume from on-site generators). These intense winds continued for nearly an hour but then things changed.
Around 2:10 AM we had made it into the eye of Laura. The haunting sound of the strong winds died down and things became still. I managed to walk outside and there was a slight breeze and the rain had stopped. There were still some misty clouds overhead as the eye was not cleared out at this point. It was unbelievable, just moments ago winds were whipping around and now, everything appeared "normal" as if nothing had happened. A quick look down though changed this as glass littered the ground along with debris outside the hotel. I stayed outside for only a short enough time to get some footage before going back in. After all, we had another portion of the eyewall to deal with.
It was close to 4 AM when things began to pick up again. We had entered the southern eyewall. Normally this part of the wall is weaker but that didn't mean that winds were calm. The reporter and I worked our way to the parking garage where our car was located. While walking there, you could hear loud "bangs". I wasn't quite sure what this noise was but around 4:30 I was able to peak outside of the garage while doing a live report and it was clear the building had taken a hit. Portions of the roof and other debris were strewn across the property. At this point, it had hit me that if such a structurally sound building like this had extensive damage things were going to be really bad when the sun came up. Strong winds continued until about 5-6 AM and after that things began to calm down as the sun started to rise in Lake Charles.
While the meteorologist side of me was excited to be in such a powerful storm overnight, things would quickly become much more somber as the true scale and scope of the damage was revealed with sunrise. Looking out of the parking garage we had just taken shelter in you could start to get a sense of how strong the winds were. In a parking lot below, a box truck had been flipped over but, more impressively, the outside of the hotel across from us had been ripped apart.
From here things would only get worse. We got in our car and worked our way to a hotel we had a room reserved at to possibly take a break. It was quite the struggle though as literally every tree, powerline, and building was damaged around us. Most roads were impassable as debris was littered everywhere. It is one thing when you see severe storm damage; something I am used to where you have "pockets" of damage here and there. With Laura though, nothing was untouched and it was boggling just how much damage was actually around you. We got to our hotel and that's when emotionally things hit me. The lobby had blown out windows and there was no power. People (likely locals) had stayed the night and were walking around. Looking at them you could see the fear in their eyes, the unknown with what had just transpired that night likely wondering if their home had survived the night. That is the moment when it really hit me, we were standing in the middle of a natural disaster zone and these people needed our help. Of course, the only way we could do anything at the time was to continue to do our job and get the news out about what had happened in Lake Charles. We left the hotel and drove a few blocks before finding people walking around in the street looking at what had happened to the place they call home. Most were in good spirits, happy that they had survived the storm but you could tell they had much bigger things on their mind.
After talking to storm survivors and getting footage of the widespread damage, it was time for the reporter and I to head back to Lafayette. Our other reporters would start to cover the damage and recovery of the region. As we weaved between downed power lines and trees on the highway in an effort to leave the city the image of those people we met especially those in the hotel that wouldn't have a place to call home while we were heading back to ours. It was an extremely humbling moment and one that will stay with me forever. This experience really gave me a chance to see the terrifying power that weather can bring and how it can disrupt the lives of so many in just a one day period. The recovery for SW Louisiana will likely take years for things to get back to complete normalcy but, until then we must hope that another storm like Laura doesn't make landfall in this region anytime soon.