This first-person report is written by Charlie Randall, who took all the photos during a storm chase in Cameron Parish, Louisiana.
It is rather surreal to be camped on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in Cameron Parish, knowing that a year and a half ago the ocean rose about 18 feet under the power of Hurricane Laura.
This storm surge swept inland over sparse but still populated bayous and marshes in southern Louisiana, washing away homes, businesses, infrastructure and cemeteries.
I had come from Canada to start a two month road trip focused on storm chasing and I had no idea what I was going to find 18 months after Laura arrived.
The scars are everywhere though. Cement tiles reminding you of where the houses once stood. Reeds and marsh grass were still draped in the trees, testifying to the height reached by the waters. Rows of twisted fence posts, mutilated by the relentless surge of water from the gulf. Trailers everywhere as the people who live here plan to rebuild.
I drove in from the east, along Highway 82, the road closest to the Gulf. I knew it would take me through the hardest hit areas of Cameron Parish, but having never witnessed any hurricane damage, it was still shocking to see the extent of the destruction and how not that she was still exactly as she would have been the day after Laura’s stroke. .
The first sign of what had happened came when I passed a now abandoned house that had been submerged in a storm surge and was heavily damaged. It was filled with reeds from the southern swamps. The house was six or seven feet above the road, which itself was about the same height above sea level. Whoever lived here had to leave before the storm, come back for see the devastation and decide he’s had enough.
The area is even less populated now, as many others have also decided not to return. The massive mobilization of resources that often occurs in response to a storm like this in more populated areas does not appear to have happened here in the same way. Although water and electricity have been restored by now, I have seen a few infrastructure buildings with the lower parts of the cladding torn away: they were still exposed to the elements, but were apparently functioning at a somewhat normal.
Moving forward, with more storms yet to come.
This notion of moving forward without completely fixing everything seems like a possible acknowledgment that more storms may arise in the future. Throughout the swamps, random debris is still left behind by the storm, slowly becoming tangled up in the local ecosystem, as birds sit on metal sheets and alligators maneuver around broken cement pipes.
While biking one day, I met a young cattle rancher, Carl, who told me that he and his extended family once had three homes on the property we were on. Laura destroyed all three, along with all of his farm equipment (he had sold 185 head of cattle three days before the storm, giving her money to work in the future). All that was left was a giant tree, with a tire swing still attached.
Carl had grown up here, and although he said he hadn’t initially planned to return and had looked for land near Shreveport and in Texas (but he says he doesn’t like Texas ), he decided to come back here with his wife and children and give farming another chance. He won’t be building any more houses, however, and is one of many here who now live in caravans, knowing they can at least move them if a future storm threatens again.
Further down, a much more morbid reminder of the power of water. Burial of the dead in these southern swamps takes place at ground level, with the coffins placed in cement caskets only a foot deep in the ground. The reason? The water table here is far too high to permit digging deep into the ground.
When Laura hit, the combination of increasingly saturated ground and the storm surge created a situation where coffins and cement coffins were floating and then being pushed north with the rising waters. Some have been recovered, but it seems likely that many were lost in the vast swamps.
Altered landscapes leave physical and social scars
The power of a hurricane is perhaps best understood in its ability to alter entire landscapes, both physically and socially. The scale of the impact can be so widespread that it takes years to recover, if at all, as seems to be the case here in Louisiana. However, humans are incredibly adaptive and resilient, and many buildings in the area were not so badly damaged. Cameron High School, for example, although suffering severe roof damage, was not affected by the surge because the school is raised 15 feet on concrete piers. While a luxury many cannot afford, any long-term quality of life in the area depends on improvements like these.
On a day with clear blue skies, windy and warm, the beauty of this place makes it easy to see why people like Carl and his family have returned, albeit timidly. People often blame hurricane survivors for living in danger in the first place. But when you grow up in a place, and it’s the only life you know… the notion of getting up and going isn’t always a viable or appealing option.
As I leave, I comment to Carl on the nearly clear 360-degree horizon around us and the awe it inspires, because I’ve never really seen anything like it. He laments that if he had his old tractor with a bucket lift on it, he would put me in it and lift me as high as possible so I could really get a feel for the scale of the open land. That beautiful, unobstructed view, of course, is part of what allowed Laura’s thrust to sweep inland so easily.
As with most things in nature, and storms in particular, it is the juxtaposition between beauty and destruction that strikes both fear and awe in us as a species, captivating for centuries. people all over the world. Whatever the hurricane season this year, the beauty of all these places along the coast will unfortunately succumb somewhere, sometimes to the unparalleled power of hurricanes.
Charlie Randall is a Canadian photojournalist, former meteorology student and now avid storm chaser traveling across the United States to observe extreme weather conditions and their aftermath.