First the pandemic, then protests and now Laura

Windows boarded up in Downtown Lafayette
While Lafayette will be spared a direct hit from Hurricane Laura, local property owners aren't taking any chances. Photo by Travis Gauthier

The gist: An impending Gulf storm reminiscent of Hurricane Rita in 2005 and scattered demonstrations are splitting public attention since Lafayette police killed a 31-year-old Black man last week. Protestors are working to keep attention on their outrage, while residents reeling from the pandemic and fatigued by years of flooding turn to face another storm.

Lafayette has been battered for months with high drama. A coronavirus resurgence in early summer has caused more pain and economic hardship throughout the region. Then, just as Acadiana hospitals got breathing room and the pandemic seemed at least in temporary retreat, Trayford Pellerin was shot approximately 11 times by police, setting off several days of protests, small by national standards but nevertheless a forceful political disruption locally. 

Then came word of a duo of hurricane threats. Lafayette escaped Marco, but Hurricane Laura is heading its way. Hours ahead of Laura’s projected landfall Wednesday evening, around 30 protestors gathered to shout from the steps of the federal courthouse in Downtown Lafayette. It was the fourth day of protests since the Friday night shooting death. On Tuesday, organizers promised not to be deterred by the storms. The night before, as Marco fizzled, a small outfit of demonstrators blocked the entrance to the gas station where Pellerin was shot, wrapping themselves, arms locked, around a truck that slowly pushed through them to gas up. 

Elsewhere in Lafayette, residents prepped casually for Laura’s arrival. Alzina Dural wiped sweat off her face as she folded hurricane info packets into mailboxes Tuesday in the Quiet Town neighborhood off Moss Street in North Lafayette. A community organizer, Dural spent the last couple of days checking on her neighbors and taking an informal census of who’s coming and who’s going from the seat of her canary yellow bike. Unphased by Hurricane Laura, most are staying — even the New Orleans transplants who escaped Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago this month. 

Covid hit Dural’s street hard. It’s still a going concern that figures prominently into evacuation plans. “The last time the ambulance came, he didn’t come back,” she said, pointing to a gold house across the street from hers. Seven people in her family have died. Her daughter’s T-shirt company has been tragically busy printing memorial shirts. 

Pellerin’s shooting had become the topic of neighborhood chatter, but for now, its residents have an eye on the storm. They, and most of the city. 

Lafayette will see high winds and intense bands of rain. But Cameron and Calcasieu parishes are bracing for devastating impact from towering storm surge deemed “unsurvivable” along the coastline by meteorologists. 

Memories of Hurricane Rita are fresh again. In the largest U.S. evacuation of the pandemic, more than half a million people were ordered to flee the Gulf Coast Tuesday. At Lafayette’s Regional Airport yesterday, state officials set up a waypoint for fleets of school buses and tour coaches to gas up on their way to Lake Charles.

Utility giant Entergy bought thousands of hotel rooms around greater Lake Charles to make room for incoming line workers, according to Louisiana Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson. Rooms in that area are now hard to come by. State officials said early Wednesday they had put up around 1,000 people in emergency hotel rooms. 

Mass shelters are off the table. That’s just not an option this time around because of concerns over coronavirus, which rebounded badly in the state over the last two months. Officials worry the shelters would become “super spreader” sites. Those needing a place to ride out the storm will be diverted to hotels in Alexandria, Baton Rouge and Lafayette. 

Ahead of the storm, Acadiana housed more homeless people in hotel shelters than anywhere else in the state. The program, spun up as congregant shelters closed, was frozen as the state began to transition out of its emergency posture. But demand did not stop. Housing advocates are moving around 50 currently unsheltered homeless into hotels, but say they’re unable to take any more. 

Predicted to be spared the worst of Laura, Lafayette Parish likely to have isolated flooding. Outside the Robicheaux Center, Joby Bonin and his sons shoveled sandbags to bring back to their low-slung home in Scott, which he said floods every time it rains. Given the more existential threat of the hurricane, he shrugged off coronavirus — “bullshit” cooked up by Louisiana’s Democratic governor — and the protests — which he called “riots.”

“But I don’t think the cops should have shot that boy that many times,” Bonin said. 

On the other side of the mound, Corey Johnson, 47, packed up dozens of sandbags into the back of his black extended cab pickup. He and a friend put enough together to protect 10 houses from potential flood waters near his home in a predominantly Black neighborhood on the other side of town. For Johnson, like others around the sandbagging site, the protests have been of remote interest, an experience on the news or on social media feeds.

“I think it’s sad what happened to that guy,” Johnson says. “I think they probably could have done something else. I mean you’ve got seven cops and you’re right there.” 

Betting on caution when it came to the storm, he turned to the sand and got back to work.