Lake Charles, Southwest Louisiana
In a state as disaster prone as Louisiana has been over the past few years, it’s hard to remember that when something bad does occur, it doesn’t impact everyone. I was reminded of this when I sat down for lunch with two friends in Lake Charles, LA. Over bowls of gumbo, I asked Ernie Broussard, the Executive Director for Planning & Development for Cameron Parish, “So how are things with the oil spill and the ruined shore line?”
Before he could answer, George Swift, the President & CEO of the Southwest Louisiana (SWLA) Partnership for Economic Development sat back in his chair, looked at Ernie and just smiled.
“Well gee Rich, I wish I could tell you but that is one problem I don’t have because I don’t have any oil on my shores.”
Expressing surprise, I looked up from my bowl and said, “What do you mean you don’t have any oil on your shoreline?”
“I’m telling you that it didn’t wash up here. We were ready for it with booms and spill response teams, but we didn’t get any of it this far west.”
Ernie and George then asked me why I thought they had oil on their coastline. I explained that based upon maps and the ongoing news reports on the spill, it seemed there was no stretch of Louisiana or Mississippi’s coastline that didn’t have an oil sheen to it. I assumed that they had fallen victim as well.
Both assured me that while they were waiting and ready for it, they never had to release any boom lines to protect their coastline from the mess that BP unleashed earlier in the year. Needless to say, both of these guys couldn’t be happier about it either.
While Ernie and George had significant empathy for their families, friends and neighbors to the east who were dealing with the mess that seems to have no end, they had other problems to contend with. Their problems though are fortunes that that the rest of the state and Gulf Coast would love to have.
Both gentlemen explained that they had the fortune of dealing with communities where growth and opportunity are availing themselves in spades. While the region is still rebuilding from the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, it still was a place where jobs could be found and investments were ripe for the making.
Southwest Louisiana is truly a world away from the rest of Louisiana. Whether it is the fact that they have a higher elevation from the southeastern part of the state or they are just closer to Texas, this section of the state has always impressed me as having more of its act together than other portions of Louisiana.
When I first met Ernie and George, it was literally just a few weeks following the wrath of Hurricane Rita. That storm, for whatever reason, is often overlooked by the media and general public when recounting the disastrous storms that have struck the United States. For all of the fury, devastation and media savvy-ness that was Katrina, Rita was actually bigger and stronger when it tore into southwest Louisiana.
Why is it overlooked and often forgotten? Probably because it did not kill the hundreds of people that Katrina did. Furthermore, the region did a tremendously better job preparing for and responding to the storm than its brethren in the southeastern part of the state. The regional parish governments, their leaders and emergency services actually had functioning and productive relationships with one another rather than some of the incompetence that other areas had in place. While the parish governments of southwest Louisiana certainly didn’t agree on everything, they certainly knew how to work together, and that is how I found them back in November-December 2005.
Truth be told, this region had essentially dealt with emergency evacuations three times in 2005. The first was when they were bringing in people from the southeastern part of the state who were seeking refuge from Katrina in the Lake Charles Civic Center, as well as their churches and homes. The second time was when they had to evacuate the Katrina evacuees because Hurricane Rita was making a direct beeline for them. The third time was when they had to evacuate themselves from the path of Rita because no one was interested in seeing the scenes of the Louisiana Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center play out in their community. Despite all of this and having areas consumed by 50-plus feet of water and laying waste to town halls, churches, courthouses and multi-generational family-owned homes, this area demonstrated incredible resilience in being able to weather the storm and move forward.
Back in 2005, I met Lakes Charles Mayor Randy Roach who introduced me to a saying that has stuck with me ever since. He said, “Just hand me a piece of plywood, and we’ll take it from there.”
As simple or even trite as that statement might sound, his message was very simple. It meant that while they may need a hand to get up after a storm, as a people and as a region, they were self reliant, entrepreneurial and confident enough to forge ahead.
Just weeks after the destructive winds and surges of water had taken so much from them, the region had put together plans to enhance its port operations; build business incubators; construct a new and sustainable lakeside waterfront in the City of Lake Charles; and more for the region to have for its future. As a community, they decided to take the fury and consequences of Rita and commit to shaping a renaissance that was true to the values and interests of the region’s citizens; this while also inviting the outside world to do business, invest and even make their home in the area.
You couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of confidence and hope residing in the area. It was incredibly awe inspiring. Whereas other portions of the state were still fighting and finger-pointing at one another over the floods of the 1930s, as well as the Katrina aftermath and who did what to whom, this portion of Louisiana skipped the dysfunctional conduct and hand-waving rhetoric and was full speed ahead on its future. That was then and seeing the results now tells me how right those feelings were.
A gleaming new environmentally conscious waterfront along the Lake Charles waterfront is just finishing construction and will be formally dedicated on September 18. A new regional business incubator at McNeese University will soon break ground and host entrepreneurs of all kinds. Regional highways have been widened and improved. The area is also home to the only newly chartered U.S. bank of 2010, Lakeside Bank, and ongoing construction boom. With regional unemployment (7.2 percent) below the national average, the post-Rita vision for the future, started in late 2005, is becoming the promising reality of today.
As George Swift shared with me in his office later that afternoon, “I hate to say it takes a crisis to motivate people, but unfortunately it does. Rita brought us together as a region like never before,” adding, “We took an unfortunate situation and planned for the future.”
While they realize they dodged a bullet in not having any oil on their shores, George, Ernie and many others know they are not out of the woods yet. With fears that spilled oil remains out in the Gulf and could come ashore in the future, and with the Obama Administration’s drilling moratorium still in place, George estimated that upwards of 20,000 jobs could be lost if this situation continues.
Despites these potential dark clouds, southwest Louisiana remains a place where hope and opportunity have taken root. But like any community in America, forces external to it are always present to cause a problem or two. I have no worries though. All they need is a piece of plywood to continue building their future. They’ll take care of the rest and leave you inspired along the way.
Check out the other pieces in this series.