In Lake Charles, a few ride out the storm

Hurricane Rita

September 25, 2005|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun Reporter

LAKE CHARLES, LA. // Dean Doe has ridden out three hurricanes at sea during his years as a ship captain and river pilot.

But listening to Hurricane Rita tear through his leafy neighborhood in this port city upriver from the Gulf of Mexico was far worse.

"In your ship, you have some type of control," Doe, 45, said yesterday. "As long as you're not caught in the hurricane, you can run from it. Sitting in a house, you knew it was coming to you instead of going away from it. It was just a nightmare."

As the powerful hurricane wobbled and churned toward the Texas and Louisiana coastline, defying forecasters' initial predictions of its path, it was this Louisiana city that bore the brunt of the storm.

With an estimated 95 percent of the 200,000 residents of the city and surrounding Calcasieu Parish heeding evacuation orders, officials said last night that they knew of no injuries or deaths. But with sustained winds of 125 mph tearing through town, the signs of Rita's destruction were everywhere.

Fallen oak and cypress trees littered the streets, some of which remained under several inches of water last night. Power lines dangled precariously from their poles.

A gaping hole was punched through the roof of the civic center, an arena that had been a long-term shelter for evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. Lake Charles swelled over the waterfront boardwalk, flooding downtown streets.

A bridge on Interstate 10 was knocked out, and a ship used by a charitable organization to ferry supplies to victims of storms and other disasters in the Caribbean ripped loose of its lines and began knocking into nearby shrimp boats, several of which began to sink.

High winds tore away shutters, metal signs and shingles; tossed portable toilets and newspaper boxes; and whipped flying debris through windshields, businesses and office tower windows.

"We saw pretty extensive damage," city spokesman Jason Barnes said last evening. "But it's nothing that we can't repair. We're not a Gulfport or a Biloxi. But we do need to get to work to bring the city back on line."

In Doe's neighborhood, a winding enclave of homes that fans out from Contraband Bayou - named for the supposed location where Jean Lafitte stashed the treasure he swiped from British ships - towering trees crushed houses and water swept hundreds of yards in from the bayou's banks.

Jack and Debby Lemon's home used to sit 250 feet from the bayou.

Yesterday, its waters flooded their guest cottage and boathouse, submerged the first floor of their split-level home and turned their meticulously landscaped yard into something of a murky lake. Trees that used to surround their home came crashing down, piercing the roof, smashing through a bay window, and ruining, among other things, several pieces of furniture, including a red velvet loveseat that had been in Debby Lemon's family for more than 150 years.

"What do you do? Do you cry?" asked Jack Lemon, also a state river pilot. "We've already been down here once to cry. Now, we've got to focus on the good things, like that we have good insurance."

With Hurricane Rita bearing down on the coast, the Lemons contemplated evacuating.

"You weigh whether to go and run out of gas on the interstate or stay here and ride it out," Jack Lemon said, adding that both he and Doe thought they should stay because of their jobs. As state river pilots, they're responsible for guiding ships through the channels, ports and currents of the Calcasieu River, the longest outer bar in the country, to the port of Lake Charles, home to the fourth-largest refinery in the United States.

They decided to ride out the hurricane with their families at the nearby home of another river pilot - one whose brick house was older and where phone lines had been buried to help ensure uninterrupted service during storms.

The three families were beginning to heat up frozen lasagna in the oven when the power went out. Flipping the switch on their two generators, they watched a movie - Sahara - and went to bed.

When they awoke at 2:30 a.m. to the sound of howling winds, they assumed that the hurricane had arrived. But a quick check of the news on the Internet revealed that the storm was not due for another half-hour.

At 3 a.m., with the winds roaring like a freight train, the windows creaking and the floorboards shaking, the two 16-year- olds in the house begged to go outside to see what the storm was doing.

"They wouldn't let us," Mary Grace Lemon said. "I'm pretty sure we would have been blown away."

Just down the street, Mike Pardo sat on his front porch, his back pressed to the brick wall of his house. Pardo, 39, works at a printing company and had never before experienced a hurricane.

"You think it's bad and then it gets worse and you begin to think, `Damn, am I going to make it?'" he said. "They say it sounds like a freight train, but I thought it was more like the rumble and howl of being up in a plane near the engine."

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