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Hurricane Laura's Aftermath

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Some relief for the Texas-Louisiana coast as it appears the storm surge from Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm, has so far not turned to catastrophe. There is major wind damage in the Cameron, Lake Charles area of Louisiana, but the tidal surge didn't get anywhere close to the 20 feet that was projected. Laura has currently dropped to a tropical storm, and it's passing through Arkansas. NPR's John Burnett is with us from Beaumont, Texas. Hey, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right, so bring us up to speed here. What does Laura's aftermath look like at this point?

BURNETT: You know, there's so much relief that despite this storm's ferocious wind, search and rescue teams are not finding a lot of fatalities. Officials say they know of at least four people who've died in Louisiana, including a 14-year-old girl, when trees fell on their houses. And in Texas, there were very few reports of injuries. Gov. Greg Abbott attributes that to so many people who evacuated before the storm. Many went to hotel rooms to avoid crowded shelters where they could catch the coronavirus.

CHANG: Right. Well, you were out this morning in a coastal area in Louisiana close to where the eye made landfall. What did it look like after a whole night of getting pounded by 150-mph winds?

BURNETT: Well, I've covered a lot of Gulf hurricanes, Ailsa, and what you see are thin sheet metal flying off of outbuildings and RVs and trailers and wrapping itself like tin foil around trees and utility poles. You see insulation scattered all over the ground like dirty yellow cotton candy. The huge hardwoods, some of them that were growing during the Civil War, get blown over, and they leave their massive root structures sticking up in the air. But the most interesting thing about covering the aftermath of a major hurricane is the people you meet in this liminal space between reality and unreality.

CHANG: And did you meet anyone who didn't evacuate, who tried to just ride out the storm?

BURNETT: I did. Her name is Roberta Holmes. She's a retired IT engineer in her 60s. She says she's autistic, and she lives all alone in a blue beach house on stilts in a tiny community called Gulf Breeze Beach. But get this. She was just 20 miles east of where Laura's eye made landfall. And that was critical to her survival because the swirling hurricane winds hit her from behind from inland, not from the Gulf.

ROBERTA HOLMES: Predominantly the wind came out of the north, so it drove the water back into the Gulf. But this storm was the first time I've ever felt the house move. But it wasn't bad.

BURNETT: Holmes says she lost two earlier dwellings here in this little development, one to Hurricane Rita in 2005 and another to Hurricane Ike in 2008. So she built that stronger and higher, exceeding local building codes. And she says during Laura, her house held up spectacularly, but she says the storm decapitated her two favorite palm trees.

HOLMES: That one was called Rita, and my one over there was called Ike.

BURNETT: And both those palm trees were sheared off by Laura.

HOLMES: Yes.

BURNETT: And stay with me here, Ailsa. I want to play one more cut of tape. You may wonder why Roberta Holmes didn't evacuate like most of the population down here. And I'll let her tell it.

HOLMES: I'm happy I made it. And there's nothing worse than being in a shelter. And with the COVID going on, I have preexisting conditions, and I was more afraid of the virus than I was the storm.

CHANG: Wow. So I'm guessing Roberta Holmes and others in the area have no electricity now. I mean, are they just on their own for the foreseeable future?

BURNETT: Yes. Nobody has power down here. We understand more than 700,000 folks are without electricity across the region. And just one more news nugget from the Lake Charles area, Ailsa. This is, of course, very heavily industrialized, and today, there was a chlorine gas chemical fire at a plant in Westlake just west of Lake Charles. Nearby residents were asked to shelter in place.

CHANG: That's NPR's John Burnett in Beaumont, Texas. Thank you, John.

BURNETT: You're sure welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.