Two years ago, hurricanes Laura and Delta hit southwest Louisiana, followed by a major ice storm and historic floods just months later. CNN dubbed our area as the “Most Weather Battered Community in the Country.” I was here to experience it all as my area tried its best to rebuild. I watched as friends and neighbors fought with insurance companies and Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter’s plea for federal assistance fell on deaf ears.
I was one of the fortunate. My home survived Hurricanes Rita, Ike, and Gustav with minimal damage; when Laura and Delta hit, I started to see signs of it being weather battered and storm fatigued. It needed roof repairs.
But it wasn’t until a major flood on May 17, 2021 that I actually considered throwing in the towel and relocating. Over 12 inches of rain fell in Lake Charles, totaling my home of 23 years.
I often think about the ride home from my office, where I still see many blue roofs, red tags, storage pods, and travel trailers in front yards. I wonder: Where is the help and where is the money?
Federal funding flowed into Louisiana for storm recovery: $450 million for relief, $11 million for housing, over $11 million for the school system. Some of the funds have been for specific purposes, such as a city homeowners’ rehabilitation project, schools, and homeowners’ assistance programs.
But it’s easy for money to fall through the cracks. My area has a dual government structure that distributes that money—city and parish governing bodies—and both received money for recovery efforts over the last two years. So when Southerly approached me about working on a project to document and track hurricane relief spending, I couldn’t say no. I owe it to myself and the citizens of southwest Louisiana to ensure funding is spent appropriately and people are aware of what’s happening.
Since June, we’ve been developing and training a group of citizens, who helped us create the Southwest Louisiana Journal. We’re working with and learning from Documenters—a network of newsrooms and community organizations that trains and pays hundreds of people to attend under-reported public meetings and publish the results—launched through City Bureau in Chicago.
“We’re excited to learn with the Southerly team and experiment how Documenters inspires and evolves with this new project,” said Max Resnik, City Bureau’s Documenters Network Manager.
You can find documenters’ meeting notes here.
We’re inspired by teams of citizen reporters popping up across the country delivering unbiased and impartial reporting. Like the others, we will attend local government meetings and follow money designated to hurricane recovery, flooding mitigation, and other emergency preparedness projects.
“Since Hurricane Laura hit, Southerly has been reporting on disaster recovery in Lake Charles,” said Lyndsey Gilpin, Southerly’s founder and publisher. “This project allows us to deepen our commitment here and ensure residents like Tasha are leading the work of holding power to account and making information accessible before, during, and long after a storm hits or emergency happens.”
We want the best for our area, as it is rich in culture and history. The storms caused us to lose an exorbitant amount of citizens that we fear won’t return, but we must look forward. We must not just rebuild our area, but build back better and stronger.
With coastal erosion, climate change, flooding, and infrastructure issues, it is my hope that the Southwest Louisiana Journal will help hold local politicians accountable to those of us who elected them. We want to ensure through our reporting things are accomplished, the public is informed, and we set a precedent that local citizens are willing to get engaged and be involved.
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Tasha Guidry is program coordinator for Lake Charles Documenters.