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In Deep: August 27, 2021

“In Deep” is a rich portrait of a working-class city and its residents at a perilous moment in our climate existence. Lake Charles’s population has yawning income and home ownership gaps between its black and white residents. There are big differences between these residents’ abilities to recover from the unrelenting, almost biblical torrent of weather catastrophes that have afflicted them. We’ll get to know people across the economic spectrum — hearing their hopes and fears in a place that seems to be the testing grounds for climate chaos.

We retrace the past year, starting with Hurricane Laura, the first in this string of storms and the strongest hurricane to hit Louisiana in more than 150 years — stronger than Katrina. The storm showed signs of being influenced by climate change — intensifying rapidly, drawing energy from warming oceans. Forecasters issued a rare warning for an “unsurvivable” storm surge in Lake Charles, more than 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. The narrative will look at the science of a changing climate, the role of the oil and gas industry in a place like Lake Charles, the history of FEMA, and the structural racism that makes it harder for the poorest, most vulnerable communities to rebound from disasters.

Our reporters spent months talking with people in Lake Charles — including city leaders, activists, insurance specialists — and learned some big lessons: The federal government and the insurance industry have failed to help thousands of people. And that failure is most acute in the parts of town where low-income and Black people are concentrated. 

Some folks in Lake Charles have banded together to help each other. They can't rebuild houses, but they can try to keep their neighbors housed and fed. 

That's how Dominique Darbonne (a white homeowner in an upper-middle-class neighborhood) and Roishetta Ozane (black and living in subsidized housing) met. Both of their places were wrecked by last summer’s first huge hurricane. Initially, FEMA denied Roishetta’s request for help.

While struggling to keep their own families housed, Roishetta and Dominique independently started helping others find housing and services. And eventually they teamed up, became friends, started an aid group. They’ve helped dozens of people find temporary housing and navigate the federal bureaucracy. Their Vessel Project is a beacon of hope. It’s a heavy load to bear, and the two are frustrated that it’s fallen to them to help their community's most vulnerable. But experts say FEMA is banking on this kind of ad hoc, by-the-seat-of-your-pants local response as more intense disasters become more frequent.

Scientists and disaster experts say mutual aid is going to be critical as the climate crisis wears on. But the people supplying and benefiting from that help in Lake Charles say it’s not sustainable. Without formal aid from FEMA or elsewhere, they’re not sure what kind of future their city — and others like it — will have.