Amid National Crises, Louisiana Mayor Fears His Decimated City Will Be Forgotten Most buildings in Lake Charles, La., were damaged by Hurricane Laura. As the city tries to rebuild amid a global pandemic, Mayor Nic Hunter worries the country will look away.

Amid National Crises, Louisiana Mayor Fears His Decimated City Will Be Forgotten

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Louisiana now, where it could be three more weeks at least before tens of thousands of people in the path of Hurricane Laura get their power back. In hard-hit Lake Charles, the mayor is begging, pleading for Americans not to forget about the devastation in his city, especially with so many other competing national crises. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In Lake Charles, broken glass from office buildings is all over the streets. A man is shoveling it away in front of City Hall. Driving around, there are downed power lines. Mangled traffic lights are dangling precariously in intersections. This city will take any good news it can, says Mayor Nic Hunter, even an announcement that 95% of the streets here are now at least navigable.

NIC HUNTER: Yeah, I have a million things going on right now. But one of the top priorities for me and members of public works is we're driving the streets. And when we see people, we're stopping. We're talking to them. We're giving people options if they want to get out of Lake Charles.

SIEGLER: Hunter stayed behind in his home as Hurricane Laura and its 150-mile-an-hour winds hit, the most powerful storm to strike Louisiana since 1856.

HUNTER: Look, guys; we're just checking up on you all.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you, appreciate it.

HUNTER: Are you all going to be staying here?

SIEGLER: In a neighborhood just north of Interstate 10, the mayor meets with Winston Andrews, who also didn't evacuate. And he's hearing that leaving now could make things worse.

WINSTON ANDREWS: They get to New Orleans, they have nothing for them.

HUNTER: I know.

SIEGLER: Mayor Hunter shakes his head. There are far fewer shelters too due to concerns about the coronavirus.

HUNTER: Do you all have a generator? What are you all doing?

ANDREWS: I have a generator.

HUNTER: And you all be careful with that generator, OK?

ANDREWS: Yeah, I've got it going outside.

HUNTER: I know. You know, we had some deaths.

SIEGLER: Five deaths from the storm in Lake Charles are because of carbon monoxide poisoning and using generators indoors.

HUNTER: There's going to be a lot of people without insurance in these areas. And we, you know - that's where we're hoping a lot of the nonprofits and FEMA will come through.

SIEGLER: FEMA says more than 50,000 claims have been filed in the hurricane zone so far. This is just one of many huge disasters straining federal coffers right now. But Hunter is more worried about broader society getting fatigued - wildfires in the West and across the country, the coronavirus pandemic and racial justice protests.

HUNTER: It is a big fear that America will forget what's happening right here and what we're going to be going through for the next weeks and months.

SIEGLER: The amount of need here is overwhelming, especially for renters like Gwendolyn Smith. She's hoping her landlord, who lives in California, will fix the roof, which collapsed when a tree fell on it.

GWENDOLYN SMITH: Yes, water comes in when it rains. Well, my brother put a tin up there, but I'm going to go and try to find a tarp for it to put up there to stop that rain because when it rains, it just pours down like a faucet.

SIEGLER: Tarps are still hard to come by six days after the hurricane. She and her 15-year-old grandson Qwentin didn't think their car and its bad transmission could make the long drive to evacuate. Her job as a security guard is on hold, and it's expensive to keep the generator running.

SMITH: And it's about to run out, you know what I mean? Yes.

QWENTIN: We done spent over at least $200 over gas.

SMITH: About $110 on just gas in the last few days.

SIEGLER: They've registered with FEMA, but who knows when real help is coming?

SMITH: Ain't nobody coming to help. Ain't nothing.

SIEGLER: So every night, Qwentin has to climb up somewhere just to get one or two bars on his cellphone.

QWENTIN: Best we can do is get on top of a car, top of somebody's - top of the house and get service. But that's at night when it's not that hot.

SIEGLER: It's risky with the roof caved in, but that's the only way he can get news to see if there are free hotels they could evacuate to.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Lake Charles, La.

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