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Floods, Winds Hammer Louisiana's Lake Charles

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Floods, Winds Hammer Louisiana's Lake Charles

Katrina & Beyond

Floods, Winds Hammer Louisiana's Lake Charles

Floods, Winds Hammer Louisiana's Lake Charles

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Hurricane Rita hit hard in Lake Charles, La., creating severe flooding and a great deal of property damage. At a leaking civic center used as a staging area for those who chose not to evacuate earlier, one couple tells of escaping from their hurricane-ravaged home by canoe.

LIANE HANSEN reporting:

Across the Sabine River about 60 miles northeast of Port Arthur, Texas, the city of Lake Charles, Louisiana, was hit hard by Hurricane Rita. Widespread flooding damaged homes and businesses, but there were no reported deaths. Yesterday, after Rita moved north, NPR's Wade Goodwyn made it into Lake Charles, Louisiana, and filed this report.

(Soundbite of water falling)

WADE GOODWYN reporting:

Walk into the Lake Charles Civic Center and you get a pretty good idea about Hurricane Rita. There are big holes in the ceiling. Water is pouring in and running down the arena steps. When it gets to the bottom of the mezzanine level, it waterfalls off to the arena floor like some sort of an expensive swimming pool feature.

(Soundbite of water falling)

GOODWYN: This looks like a place people need to be rescued from, but this is the rescue staging area. It's also the place where evacuees are being brought to be bused out. Fire Chief Bill Bergeron explains Lake Charles took a hard one in the snout.

Chief BILL BERGERON (Lake Charles Fire Department): Most all the businesses have major damage, roof damage. We have houses that are underwater in low-lying areas. We got part of the east side of the eye. We pretty much got the brunt of it.

GOODWYN: Driving around Lake Charles is a not-so-fun obstacle course of light and electric poles leaning into the road windshield high. Lake Charles' namesake has flooded her banks, spilling water into every low spot. The waterfront casinos broke from their moorings and smashed up against the seawall. The wind is blowing so hard that the lake looks like a white-capped ocean. Chief Bergeron says trying to get to the families trapped by the floodwaters in these conditions is putting his rescuers at serious risk.

Chief BERGERON: Right now we have the game wardens that have brought the boats and they're staging south of town and they'll have boats in the water shortly. We've had some boats already in low-lying areas for a couple of rescues, but we've had some problems with it.

GOODWYN: Across the hall sit a small group of evacuees. A couple in their late 70s sit on folding metal chairs looking completely done in. Bob and Marilyn Berkstrom(ph) had just finished an extensive remodel on their home and Marilyn says they felt confident about riding the storm out.

Mrs. MARILYN BERKSTROM: Our house had been rebuilt after a house fire and we looked at it, and my daughter's friend said, `This place is a bunker,' you know? And we were very well prepared. We'd been through hurricanes before.

GOODWYN: The Berkstroms had their daughter over, she brought a friend, and they all had a hurricane party. When the lights went out, candles were lit as the wind howled outside.

Mrs. BERKSTROM: We were drinking wine and eating smoked turkey and cheese and crackers last night, saying, `Well, this is not so bad.'

GOODWYN: There is sometimes a thin line between life and death. Late that night after everyone had retired to their rooms, Marilyn suddenly got a bad feeling. Instead of ignoring it and telling herself she was being silly, Marilyn made Bob get everybody out of bed and move them to the living room. That saved their grown daughter's life. Bob smiles lovingly at his wife as he tells what happened.

Mr. BOB BERKSTROM: It was her little ESP and we moved from the bedrooms to the living room laying on the floor when about a two-and-a-half-foot-diameter and about 45-feet-long tree crashed into the house. It sounded like a bomb went off.

Mrs. BERKSTROM: And the bed she would have been sleeping in, she would just have been impaled into the mattress.

GOODWYN: The cozy little hurricane party was over. Rain began to pour into the house and 100-mile-an-hour winds were also whipping around uninvited. When the Berkstroms looked outside their front window, to their horror, the house was surrounded by floodwaters. It was a miserable night. When daylight broke and the wind relented a little, they decided to make their escape, all four in one canoe.

Mr. BERKSTROM: There were whitecaps on Lake Street. The water was about five feet deep.

Mrs. BERKSTROM: We went under power lines. We went around enormous trees that had fallen over. One or two places, we had to get out of the canoe and lift it over things and then get back in the canoe. You know, we're getting a little old for this kind of carrying on.

GOODWYN: The Berkstroms' Hurricane Rita story turned out OK. Today, rescue teams and boats will begin finding out how other Lake Charles families' stories ended. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Lake Charles, Louisiana.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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