STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Can the United States handle two disasters at once? The Gulf Coast region is finding out. Coronavirus case numbers in some communities in the path of Hurricane Laura were high when the Category 4 hurricane came ashore. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports the storm is making services even harder to get.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In Orange, Texas, just across the Sabine River from Louisiana, a line of cars hundreds deep snakes along the highway shoulder and into a parking lot. A local supermarket has set up an aid distribution center in the hot, humid afternoon.
TORY CARTER: We're just basically trying to see what we can get. As of now, we just got back from Austin today, so we're just looking at it I guess cleaning supplies. Whatever they're offering, that'll help.
SIEGLER: Tory Carter is with her 5-year-old son and mom. They evacuated to Austin as Hurricane Laura approached the Gulf Coast. They were relieved to find a hotel room during the storm. Their house is mostly OK. But there's no power or water, and she's worried about the virus and being able to keep things clean.
CARTER: It's definitely more stressful 'cause you have to be a lot more safer now. Things are easily, you know, trans (ph) - you know, you can catch it easy.
SIEGLER: Nearby, two men in face masks unload bags of ice off of an 18-wheeler. As fast as they can unload them, volunteers in face shields scoop them up and toss them into the trunks of awaiting cars. They tell folks to keep their windows rolled up as much as they can to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How you doing, guys?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible) ...Now.
SIEGLER: This is what it looks like to try to deal with two major crises at once - the pandemic and now hurricane season and that ever-present anxiety that the next storm could be even worse than Laura.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS SOUNDING)
SIEGLER: A half-hour drive east into Louisiana, Interstate 10 is jammed with emergency vehicles and utility trucks. There are car accidents. There's a powerline here or a huge tree there still blocking the road. The city of Lake Charles, population 80,000, took a direct hit. Whole neighborhoods look decimated - trees completely uprooted, roofs of hotels and apartment complexes peeled off.
Near the airport, first responders have set up a makeshift staging area powered by generators.
MICHAEL KIMBLE: COVID brings it to a whole new level, right? I mean...
SIEGLER: Michael Kimble is in charge of Louisiana's search and rescue teams.
KIMBLE: These first responders - these guys are out there beating it down all day long, going from house to house to house having to worry about where proper protection for them. And if we do come in contact with citizens that need rescuing, they probably don't have the proper PPE.
SIEGLER: Who can blame someone in total crisis for forgetting their face mask? So Kimble's teams are doing what they can - twice-a-day temperature checks and COVID screenings. The protocol is especially stringent if you're arriving from out of state. Before Jeremiah Plasters and his team of firefighters deployed from Florida, everyone got a rapid COVID test.
JEREMIAH PLASTERS: So everybody tested negative. So we're going with the fact that everybody rolling out the door to come here was negative. And since we're all staying together and we're using our PPE, the only way that we would get it is by somebody else making contact with us.
SIEGLER: And Plasters says COVID doesn't stop them from doing their job, but it's just one more threat they could encounter. From here, he'll go by military chopper then usually an inflatable raft to some of the hardest-hit coastal areas.
Now, while Laura spared the major cities, the path of the storm crossed over more than 600,000 houses. There is a lot of destruction, and there are far fewer shelters than normal due to worries about clustering too many people together and spreading the virus. The Red Cross says it's received an unprecedented number of calls for aid, owed largely to the fact that the pandemic already had people living on the brink.
TRICHEE ABRAHAM: It's just kind of hard right now. We're going to just make do with what we have. We don't have a lot of money.
SIEGLER: This is Trichee Abraham. She lost her job as a cashier during the pandemic. She used up her savings getting a hotel when she evacuated.
ABRAHAM: Money - if we could get some money to sustain us right now until they get the power and stuff back on and people can go back to work - we can't even go to work right now.
SIEGLER: And many people can't go home because they've lost everything. The nearest emergency shelters are now in the New Orleans area, a 200-mile drive east.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Lake Charles, La.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.