Hurricane Laura: A medic’s diary

Paramedic Kelly Grayson recounts weathering the storm that damaged his station and ambulance, and left the city in tatters

At 0300 UTC on Aug. 20, 2020, Tropical Depression 13 formed approximately 1,035 miles east-southeast of the Leeward Islands. At 0100 local time on Aug. 27, it made landfall on the Louisiana Gulf Coast near Cameron as Hurricane Laura. A strong Category 4 hurricane still gaining strength as it approached, Laura hit the Louisiana coast with sustained winds of 150 mph, making it the strongest hurricane to ever strike the Louisiana Gulf Coast.

Dwarfing even the power and destruction of Hurricane Rita, Laura still packed tropical storm winds in Little Rock, AR, 300 miles north of landfall.

What follows is my EMS account of working through the storm.

In this Aug. 27, 2020 file photo, buildings and homes are flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura near Lake Charles, La. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
In this Aug. 27, 2020 file photo, buildings and homes are flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura near Lake Charles, La. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

0500, August 26: Time to leave for work. I’ve got food, money, water and uniforms to last for three days. My duty station is 62 miles southwest of my home, directly in the hurricane’s path. I kiss Nancy goodbye, scratch my dog behind the ears, and remind him to be a good boy while I’m gone. Acadian tells me to be prepared to be on-duty for at least 36 hours, a projection I find exceedingly optimistic.

0700, August 26: Shift start. My partner and I do a rig check, and immediately leave to purchase ice for our coolers. We’ll be without power and communications by the time this shift is over. We charge our phones and electronic devices, along with every battery pack I have.

0930, August 26: Running calls for the worried well who for whatever reason didn’t evacuate. Calcasieu Parish is under a mandatory evacuation order, and we urge everyone we encounter to leave. “When the storm hits, we won’t be coming for you, and after it hits, we won’t be able to get to you.” A few heed our advice.

1330, August 26: We’re transporting a COPD’er who is afraid he might get sick when the power goes out. The shelter is afraid to deal with him, and a woman there keeps insisting, “He needs to be admitted to the hospital!” We gently explain that the hospital isn’t going to admit anyone because they might have a problem later. We load him and his oxygen concentrator in the rig and transport, knowing we’ll get chewed out by the ED staff when we arrive. The hospital staff will discharge him almost immediately, and they’ll put him on a bus to the Alexandria Megashelter, 100 miles away. He’ll be better off there.

1530, August 26:  Thunderstorms and intermittent power outages now, and Laura is still 150 miles from landfall. A 560-pound patient at a local shelter is having chest pain. He wants to be anywhere but here, and I can’t blame him; the walls are sweating in the shelter, and the air is so thick you can almost see it. I do a 12-lead and give him aspirin and nitro, but our stretcher can’t accommodate him. We wind up transporting him on his motorized wheelchair in a wheelchair van, with me in attendance in the front passenger seat.

1730, August 26: We’re ordered to shelter at the local fire department. I’m cool with that; if I know firefighters, they’ll have hot coffee and food, and a big generator to keep the AC running.

1830, August 26: It’s official, we’re at stand-down. Sustained winds are now greater than 45 mph, and all ambulances are parked until the storm is over. Whoever is still out there is on their own; help isn’t coming.

2000, August 26: There are dogs running loose in 70 mph winds, and the rookie firefighters are trying to rescue them. When people call animal control for advice on what to do with their pets, the officers tell people to turn their pets loose and run for it. There is nothing else they can do.

2200, August 26: There is a small oak tree, maybe 15 inches in diameter, in front of city hall. A firefighter points, “That tree survived Rita, Ike and Gustav. I’m betting it’ll survive this one.” We immediately christen it The Little Oak That Could, our touchstone of resilience. The power goes out for maybe 30 seconds, the big diesel generator rumbles to life, and the lights and AC come back on. Everybody breathes a sigh of relief.

2300, August 26: Winds at 100 mph, likely more. I say “likely,” because the two storm chasers who have taken shelter with us recorded a gust 20 minutes ago at that speed. That was the last reading they got. Apparently, their wind gauge isn’t waterproof.

0100, August 27: Landfall. Cameron, Grand Chenier, Hackberry and Holly Beach are getting hammered with 10-foot storm surge and 150 mph winds. Jim Cantore reports on The Weather Channel that roughly 150 people have chosen to ride it out in Cameron, some of them in travel trailers. My partner and I trade a knowing look; stupidity is our bread and butter.

0130, August 27: We’re all silently rooting for The Little Tree That Could. It still has all its branches, and then something wet and furry gets whipped out of the tree and lands in the parking lot with a splat. It scampers away immediately, and a firefighter marvels that a squirrel could survive that. “I read somewhere that squirrels can survive a fall at close to terminal velocity,” I tell him. We spend the next 20 minutes speculating about squirrel terminal ballistics.

0200, August 27: The apparatus bay door on the east side of the building gives way with a frightening boom. A dozen people scramble to brace it, finally backing an engine against it to hold it upright.

0300, August 27: The northern wall of the eye is upon us, with 120 mph winds, hail and horizontal rain. Debris shatters the passenger side window of my ambulance, and a few moments later, the air horn starts blaring in a long, ominous howl. Water is being blown into the rig, shorting out our siren and electrical system. A rookie firefighter whispers, “What the hell is making that noise?”

“The sound of doom,” I answer darkly.

0430, August 27: The southern edge of the eye has passed over us, and the winds have shifted from the east. A crash and howling wind awakens everyone sleeping in City Hall. The windows of the city council chamber have collapsed, funneling the wind and rain into the building. Three burly firefighters are leaning against the glass doors of the city council chambers in a losing battle with the wind. They finally wind up wedging an extension ladder between the doors and the opposite wall, sacrificing the city council chamber to save the rest of the building.

0700, August 27: The storm has left the city in tatters. Many structures are no longer standing, and every one that survived is damaged in some way. Two years ago, a tornado roared down the street in front of our station, leaving a swath of destruction a hundred yards wide and a mile long. Now the entire city looks like that.

Our ambulance runs, but is not fit to transport patients. My partner and I listen to radio traffic describing the devastation in Lake Charles. Twenty of our coworkers have lost their homes. We sweep out the glass and pooled water, and spend the next several hours shadowing firefighters and road crews. There is nothing else to be done; nobody can get to us for hours more, at least. Every road for miles around is blocked with down trees and power lines.

1530, August 27: The major highways are open, and help is flooding into town. Convoys of utility trucks, ambulances, cops and mobile command centers are converging on us from all compass points.

1600, August 27: “Does this place have a public restroom?” a man asks. I’m supposed to tell him no, but something about him speaks of a man at the end of his rope. He is dressed in overalls with no shirt, and white rubber boots. I point silently to the men’s room, and after he relieves himself, he stands in the hallway like a man lost.

“How’s Cameron?” I guess, and he answers with a sigh of despair. “Under water. My house is gone. I got out with my wife, my kids and my dog. I don’t even know where we are.”

We tell him, and my partner says, “You got what’s important. Everything else is just stuff. You can rebuild.”

“Don’t know how,” the man sobs. “The shrimp boat I worked on sank at the dock. I don’t even have a job.” Having no answer for that, we watch him silently as his mask of stoicism dissolves into tears. After a moment, he dries his eyes and says, “Sorry for that. A man’s not supposed to cry in front of his wife, but I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

“Don’t cry in front of a paramedic, either,” I warn him. “Or I’ll be crying with you. I’m talking ugly cry, with snot and runny mascara, the whole thing.”

He snorts out a laugh, and says, “Thanks, man.”

1900, August 27: My relief makes it from Crowley, 65 miles East. The trip takes close to three hours, he tells me. Interstate 10 west of the Calcasieu River is closed down due to a chlorine fire at one of the petrochemical plants. I hand over my narcotics and radio to my relief, and point my truck north.

2200, August 27: I pull into my driveway, wet, tired and exhausted. The drive home took three times the usual span, and involved not a few detours and off-roading through fields in four-wheel-drive. Trees are down everywhere and I have a month’s worth of cleanup ahead.

My water is out and my power will be out for at least a month, but my home, my girlfriend and my critters are safe, and I’m home. Life goes on.

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