After years of weathering the storm, Lake Charles mourns beloved meteorologist

A man in a suit and tie looks into the camera.
Ben Terry, beloved meteorologist of Lake Charles TV station KPLC died on Sunday, August 13, 2023. Photo courtesy of KPLC.

There’s a picture of meteorologist Ben Terry that, as soon as you mention his name to any Southwest Louisiana resident, is likely to spring to their mind. Terry, sporting a red shirt, gray shorts and defiant look on his face, sitting on the front lawn of his Lake Charles home — or what’s left of it, anyway.

Like many locals, Terry saw his home destroyed by Hurricane Laura. Months later, he shared another grim update: He had been diagnosed with cancer.

On Sunday, Terry, whose struggles alongside his fellow storm survivors made him family even to strangers, died. He was 40.

There will be plenty to remember him by. 

The words “Change the channel then,” his famed response to a Facebook comment deriding his warnings ahead of Hurricane Laura as “promoting fear and panic” emblazon mugs and T-shirts. Votive candles bearing his image were lit in households across Lake Charles when it was announced that, after a years-long battle, Terry would be moving into hospice care.

“He will be remembered as someone who told the truth, someone who was trusted and someone that they’d like to have around,” said KPLC morning anchor John Bridges, who interviewed Terry when he first joined the station more than a decade ago, long before he became a local icon.

Two men in windbreakers pose for a selfie.
Meteorologist Ben Terry, right, with KPLC co-host and sports commentator John Bridges. Photo courtesy of John Bridges.

Being a weatherman in a community regularly threatened by extreme weather makes for a special role, said KPLC Chief Meteorologist Wade Hampton.

“Whether it’s a Laura, an ice storm, a flood or a tornado — they trust us to get them through that,” Hampton said. “We’re just as much of a community advocate or a figure in public as a politician.”

And while national weather personalities drop in and out as the news moves on, and young talent moves on to bigger markets, Terry stayed. Even after his house was destroyed by Laura and his treatment required regular trips to Houston, he stayed. In total Terry, originally from Northern Mississippi, spent over a decade in Lake Charles.

“A lot of others, including myself, would have thrown in the towel a long time ago. He never did,” said Candy Rodriguez, a former KPLC colleague-turned-close-friend who accompanied Terry on many of his treatment visits to Texas. 

Terry was a beloved community figure before the storms, but his commitment to the community, even as the national news moved on and it seemed that help might never arrive in this oft-forgotten corner of the state, cemented his role as Lake Charles’s patron saint.

“He was a fierce defender of this community — because we often get overlooked for Houston and New Orleans when it comes to storms,” said John O’Donnell, executive director of SBP, a local branch of the statewide nonprofit rebuilding homes after natural disasters. After Laura, the city still in tatters, Terry famously quipped that the Weather Channel must have forgotten how to spell Lake Charles based on how quickly it shifted focus to New Orleans.

Four people stand inside a news studio.
Meteorologist Ben Terry with former KPLC morning show co-hosts John Bridges, Britney Glaser and Candy Rodriguez. Photo courtesy of KPLC.

Leading up to the storm, Terry stepped up to the plate at a time when the community was at risk in a way it hadn’t been for a long time, O’Donnell said.

“It had been 15 years since we’d seen anything remotely the size of this thing that was coming at us,” O’Donnell said of Laura. Terry’s warnings and his public decision to evacuate broke through the apathy. 

“We knew to trust Ben,” he said. “When people saw that Ben Terry was leaving, they knew that it was time to go.”

He fought his cancer after suffering the same devastation as so many of his viewers after the storms, and still showed up to tell people what to expect from Mother Nature every day.  It inspired people, his former colleagues say. 

“His story gave hope to other people,” Rodriguez said. 

Kaylen Fletcher Peters was one of the many people who never met Terry in person, but still felt connected to him. She was inspired by his story of perseverance, as she herself struggled to return to normalcy after losing her home to the storm.

“Even though we didn’t know him, we felt like we did,” Peters said. “He was such a monumental force.”

After hearing that Terry would be moving into hospice care on Aug. 10, Peters and her colleagues at Lamar Advertising of Lake Charles quickly put together a digital billboard design with a message of support, sporting the colors of his alma mater, Mississippi State University.

“We just wanted him to know he was loved,” Peters said.

A billboard featuring the message
After it was announced that Terry would be moved into hospice care, billboards went up across the Lake Charles area expressing support. Photo courtesy of KPLC

That love was palpable, too, at the funeral service at University Baptist Church in Lake Charles on Wednesday, as former KPLC colleagues reminisced about Terry’s first days at the station, Friday night football games watched together at East Beauregard High School and sparklers lit on New Year’s Eve. 

“He became part of our family,” Glaser said. 

While much of Terry’s life revolved around work — courtesy of a morning show schedule that required a 2:30 a.m. alarm — he’s fondly remembered by a tight-knit circle of friends too, as a handy houseguest, an excellent cook and a great listener.

Three men pose for a picture at an LSU football game inside Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge.
Mississippi State University alumni Ben Terry with friends Floyd Coghlan and Ben Dabadie at an LSU football game against Texas A&M in 2019. Photo courtesy of Floyd Coghlan.

At Wednesday’s funeral, the closing words came from Terry’s pastor, Johnny Dammon, of First Baptist Lake Charles. In keeping with Terry’s wishes, there was no mention of a battle lost, no matter how open he had been with his cancer journey, and the toll it took on him over the past three years.

“Ben didn’t give up. Ben didn’t lose his battle. He entrusted himself to the one who made him,” Dammon said. “He’s cancer free now. He’s pain free now. He’s good.”

In his chosen home of Lake Charles, the local print shop is bringing back T-shirts sporting his famous quote. Terry himself will return to Mississippi, where he will be laid to rest in a private funeral on Saturday.