We’re Just Now Figuring Out the Toll of Hurricane Laura

As Audubon Louisiana assesses damage to its coastal sites, including Rainey Sanctuary, people in Louisiana need help to recover from the storm.

Hurricane Laura hit southwest Louisiana last week as the strongest hurricane to affect the state since 1856, with winds up to 150 miles per hour. A total of 70 people were killed by the storm in the United States and the Caribbean, and an associated chemical fire at a chlorine plant in Lake Charles’s industrial region added even more strain to local communities. Widespread power outages, downed trees, and a lack of safe drinking water for many households means that recovery will continue slowly over the coming month. More than 11,000 people are evacuated to major cities like New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina devastated communities 15 years ago.

The storm made landfall in coastal Cameron Parish, where Audubon Louisiana protects beach-nesting birds like Least Terns and Wilson’s Plovers. Many areas remain impassible and disconnected from the outside world. There, entire automobiles and appliances lie stranded in the marshes where wind and waves dropped them, buildings are reduced to rubble, cell phone towers are down, and any tree still left standing is stripped of its leaves. Just to the north, in Calcasieu Parish, the cities of Lake Charles and Sulphur were also devastated by the hurricane.

Audubon’s staff in Louisiana are safe, and our hearts are with the people of southwest Louisiana, including many of our partners, volunteers, and supporters who may not have homes, schools, churches, or businesses to return to. To experience loss like this during a global pandemic adds an extra layer of grief and complexity to the recovery process.

How Hurricane Laura Affected Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary

In nearby Vermilion Parish, Audubon Louisiana staff assessed our oldest and largest bird sanctuary, the 26,000-acre Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary for storm damage. Since 1924, this remote living laboratory of coastal restoration has protected more than 200 species of birds, but now is struggling with decades of rising sea levels. Situated on the very edge of Louisiana’s coast, the sanctuary is no stranger to storm surge, and staff there have created a series of elevated earthen terraces that protect the adjacent wetlands from the worst effects of storms and provide nesting habitat for birds. Rainey provides opportunities to study real-time impacts and develop strategies for climate change and sea level rise adaptation.

The photos below reveal significant impacts to the sanctuary, which is only accessible by boat. Although the sanctuary manager’s house is still standing, a slick layer of chocolate-brown mud coats the floor and the stairs to the front door have been ripped from the foundation. Everywhere, dead marsh grass debris outlines how high the storm surge came up on the property—an estimated 7 to 8 feet. Audubon staff are still assessing how the storm affected birds and the coastal restoration projects on the sanctuary property.

Experts say that warmer ocean temperatures caused by climate change provide fuel for hurricanes like Laura to rapidly intensify before making landfall. Climate change threatens both birds and people on our coasts, and Audubon is working to ensure that we not only make our coasts more resilient to the effects of climate change, but that we also reduce carbon emissions to stop climate change in its tracks. Louisiana is leading the nation in this effort, with a $50 billion Coastal Master Plan to improve coastal resilience and reverse the extreme land loss caused in part by levees on the Mississippi River and the oil exploration canals cutting through the state’s marshes. Louisiana’s governor also announced last month the establishment of a Chief Resilience Officer and a climate task force, along with goals to reduce the state’s carbon emissions.

What Can We Do Right Now?

Hurricane recovery looks very different this year due to COVID-19. Social distancing requirements mean that evacuees are sheltered in individual hotel rooms, creating an additional challenge for them to connect to the state and federal services they need to receive donations, apply for financial assistance, and access medical care.

Local organization Imagine Water Works has set up a Mutual Aid Response Network and Hurricane Laura Relief Fund to directly address the needs of individual evacuees and ensure that hurricane recovery is just and equitable. They are committed to distributing those funds directly and transparently and prioritizing the funding, leadership, and safety of Black, Indigenous, and people of color who are most impacted by Hurricane Laura. Donate to the Hurricane Laura Relief Fund here.

Audubon will provide additional updates regarding the impact of the storm on birds and bird habitat, including restoration projects in the region, as we gather this information over the coming weeks and months.