Defense Media Network

The Rita Renaissance

While inextricably attached to a state that is proud to call both regions home, the worlds of southeast and southwest Louisiana could not be more different. The louder and better-known half, southeast Louisiana, has the mighty waters of the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain amidst its shorelines as well as the loud and legendary City of New Orleans calling it home. All of the history, culture, and notoriety that is rooted there is truly a world away from a more rural, lesser-known, and even more blue-collar region of the state that is absolutely indispensable to the American way of life.

As home to the strategic national stockpile and over 25 percent of the natural gas that fuels more than half the homes and industries of the United States, southwest Louisiana has more often than not been overlooked and underappreciated for the value it brings to America. The same holds true in recognizing its place in the most disastrous hurricane season in U.S. history.

It is not at all unusual for any American to remember where they were when they saw the carnage and destruction of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Yet few can remember the storm that struck nearly a month later that was larger, more powerful, and even more destructive to the region and the nation’s critical infrastructure.

Rita struck southwest Louisiana on Sept. 23, 2005, bringing unprecedented 50-foot storm surges inland into homes and communities that had been in place for nearly two centuries. People who had spent their entire lives in these areas were forced to evacuate, abandoning properties that had been in their families for generations.

After witnessing the destruction that Hurricane Katrina had wreaked upon the Greater New Orleans area and the Mississippi coastline four weeks earlier, no one from the federal, state, and local government was taking any chances. As a result of those coordinated efforts, only seven lives were claimed by Rita, compared to the nearly 2,000 killed by Katrina. The coordination among parish governments and their respective emergency services, critical infrastructure owners and operators, and the region’s residents stood in significant contrast to the confusion and chaos that reigned in the southeastern portion of the state. The area had, in fact, become quite practiced in dealing with evacuations for nearly 30 days.

Federal, state, and local officials break ground in 2007 for the new terminal building at the Lake Charles Regional Airport. The new facility replaces one destroyed by Hurricane Rita. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided more than $2.7 million for the project. The region’s leaders turned the disaster of Hurricane Rita into an opportunity to improve the area. Photo by Manuel Broussard/FEMA

Lake Charles, the largest city in southwest Louisiana, had become a de facto home to thousands of evacuees from the Greater New Orleans area prior to, and immediately following, Katrina’s strike. Busloads of people from the other side of the state poured into the Lake Charles Civic Center and other regional emergency shelters, taking up residence on cots. Many arrived with the only possessions they had left in the world – the clothes on their backs.

When Hurricane Rita started churning in their direction, the Civic Center and other shelters in the region had to evacuate Katrina’s victims before ultimately evacuating themselves further inland to avoid the deadly surges of water and hurricane winds coming from the Gulf.

By the time this second record-breaking storm had passed and the initial assessments of the devastation were under way, regional leaders had already started working together to rebuild not just what was taken from them, but a community that was stronger, more sustainable, and more resilient than before. And so began the Rita Renaissance.

Leading the charge was a team of public- and private-sector leaders who knew they had one chance to get things right. Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach, a leader short in stature but large in vision, grasped the challenges that faced his community and saw them as an opportunity to showcase to the state and the nation the uniqueness and resilience of the people that had settled in the area.

Addressing a Back to Business Conference eight weeks after the storm, Roach issued a charge to the assembled federal, state, and emergency service providers that came to assist the region with its recovery: “Just hand us a piece of plywood, and we’ll take it from there.”

That is exactly what they’ve done.

“We took an unfortunate situation and we planned for our future,” said George Swift, the president and CEO of the Southwest Louisiana (SWLA) Partnership for Economic Development, and one of Roach’s key partners in the economic renaissance under way in the region.

“I hate to say it takes a crisis to motivate people, but unfortunately it does,” Swift added.

Rather than replicate the turf wars and finger-pointing dramas that the region saw playing out in the New Orleans area in the weeks and months following Katrina, southwest regional parish leaders, as well as government and business interests led by Swift and the SWLA Partnership for Economic Development, coalesced around a targeted series of initiatives and investments that would not just restore what was lost but invite investment for the future.

Using funds from the Louisiana Recovery Authority and other federal disaster assistance dollars, the area repaired the Civic Center where Katrina evacuees once took refuge and that Rita ultimately severely damaged. They also built a brand-new waterfront plaza and community area called the Lakefront Promenade and Marina, offering the entire southwest portion of the state a place where recreation, commerce, and civic pride would find a new and brighter home. To ensure the economic livelihood of the area, they secured plans and funding for dredging the Calcasieu/Lake Charles ship channel to speed the delivery of liquid natural gas, chemicals, and other regionally produced industrial products between the Gulf of Mexico and the rest of the country. Improvements to Interstate 10, which connects the region’s east-west traffic flow, were also initiated and completed. To further fuel the growth of one of the nation’s busiest transportation corridors, a new small business incubator has been established at McNeese University, breaking ground in late 2010. Further complementing these efforts is the fact that over a million people per year come to the area’s four casinos in search of Lady Luck.

To keep the investments in regional infrastructure and other improvements going, regional political and business leaders got behind a $90 million bond initiative, which passed in 2007. These dollars would fund major investments in utilities, transportation, economic development, parks, and more.

Reflecting on all of these steps forward in his Lake Charles office, Swift explained, “Rita brought us together as a region like never before.”

In sharing his obvious civic pride for the work that the region had done and continue to do, Swift recounted a phone call he received during the summer of 2010 from a New York Times reporter. Calling to inquire about the news of the only newly chartered bank in the United States in 2010, Lakeside Bank, the reporter challenged Swift on the economic growth that had been occurring in the region. With a regional unemployment rate of 7.2 percent – far below the national average – and continued job creation going on at local employers like Aeroframe Services, Northrop Grumman, Shaw, and others, the reporter expressed surprise, if not disbelief, at the good fortunes that had taken root in the area.

The Trunkline LNG Lake Charles Terminal. The Calcasieu/Lake Charles ship channel was dredged to speed the delivery of liquefied natural gas, chemicals, and other industrial products between the area and the rest of the United States and the world. Photo courtesy of Panhandle Energy

“Maybe it’s a stereotype of backwater Louisiana – but we’re growing and building opportunities here like never before,” Swift said.

When asked why this portion of the state is booming while other portions of southeastern Louisiana with more people, resources, and attention are still struggling with recovery, the answer is very clear to one person with his hands in the concrete mix that seems to be poured daily in the region.

Patrick Moore, the president and co-founder of Moore Planning Group, who led a team in developing the implementation strategy and business plan for the lakefront and downtown revitalization, was also tagged to lead the programming and design of several projects in the area, including the new Lakefront Promenade and Marina in the City of Lake Charles. He was quick to declare, “There is a care and regionalism here that exists in ways like no other in Louisiana.

“From the beginning of this state, we’ve clawed our way to survival,” Moore said. We’ve been beat up, burned down, and blown away in I don’t know how many ways, but we know how to work together. We have to stay together or we die. That, in its truest essence, is the definition of resiliency!”

Moore was also quick to distinguish that “there is New Orleans and then there is the rest of Louisiana.”

He also observed the “media craze and fascination” with what occurred in New Orleans following Katrina.

While disappointed that this portion of the state seems to be forgotten by the national media and the rest of the country in terms of recognizing the recovery and rebirth that has been unfolding, Moore’s pride for the work that he and his employees have been doing with the Lakefront Promenade and Marina was more than obvious. He recounted as the construction proceeded how people would come up to him and the construction crews to cheer them on and encourage their work.

“There is a sense of hope to what we are doing here, and it’s exciting their soul,” he said.

At the core of Moore’s work has been a mission focus to “fix, improve, give hope, and spur economic development.”

Moore believes that the region and Lake Charles in particular are at the cusp of being a national model for sustainable communities. By linking their shared investments in infrastructure, education, economic development, and livability, the region can and will be a driver for economic opportunity and overall resilience.

Overlook at the Lake Charles promenade and marina. Moore Planning Group photo by Hannah-Piper Moore

It would seem that Moore may be right, especially when measuring how this area is doing when compared to other parts of the country that are still deep within the throes of the lingering recession. It’s even more impressive given the fact they are only five years from experiencing one of the largest and most costly natural disasters in U.S. history.

Despite the ongoing post-Rita recovery and growth, the shadow of the BP oil spill has also had an impact upon the area. While no oil washed up on their immediate shorelines, the offshore drilling moratorium imposed by the Obama administration preventing new oil wells from being started has been a blow to the area’s economy. Workers and support businesses that would normally be engaged in such operations have been forced to remain onshore, and as a result, unemployed.

Swift estimated that if the moratorium proceeds to the end of 2010, nearly 20,000 jobs could be lost. He noted that by the end of summer in 2010, at least three oil rigs had closed and the sponsoring oil companies had moved their operations elsewhere, thereby taking jobs and other economic growth opportunities with them. “We’re all suffering for that decision [the moratorium],” Swift said.

In describing his frustration with the Obama administration’s decision on this issue, Swift offered, “When you have a plane crash, you don’t shut down the whole industry. You look at the crash and investigate what happened, but you don’t kill the industry.”

Regardless of the moratorium, the ongoing recovery, enhanced civic pride and continued growth in southwest Louisiana in the wake of such a catastrophic event can only be described as remarkable. When asked if Rita was a mixed blessing, Moore, looking over the finishing touches of a newly installed lakefront fountain, had no hesitation in responding, “Yes.”

Explaining that everyone could have done without the loss of lives and property, and the ruin that affected the region, “the opportunity to build something stronger that can carry us into the future has been seized like never before.”

“We want the rest of America to understand that when you meet us, our hand is out to shake yours, give ya a hug, pull you in closer to work with us so we can make things right for all of us. I mean, I know of no other place you can do that but here. Do you?”

This article was first published in The Year in Homeland Security: 2010-2011 Edition.


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...