Supply chain issues, inflation and labor shortages haven’t slowed down the progress in Lake Charles that continues more than a year after Hurricanes Laura and Delta, Mayor Nic Hunter said. By the end of 2022, housing availability could be roughly 90-95 percent of what it was pre-Laura, he said.
“With so much stacked against us, I’m pretty amazed with the amount of work accomplished so far,” he said.
Having up to 10 percent of the city’s housing stock eliminated over a two-year span is challenging, but Hunter said it could be worse. One main issue, he said, remains the availability of resources to get storm-damaged homes repaired.
“There are neighborhoods that look like Hurricane Laura just hit yesterday,” he said.
Hunter said the city is still waiting to receive the roughly $600 million in federal funding allocated for Southwest Louisiana’s hurricane recovery. He and other local officials expressed disappointment in the amount of federal funding set aside for the region, saying it won’t come close to meeting recovery needs, the biggest being long-term housing.
“It could take months, maybe even years before the money approved by Washington hits the streets,” Hunter said. “It’s a cumbersome process, and it’s mired down in red tape. That’s a real disappointment.”
Despite some hardships, Hunter said there are signs the city is bouncing back from last year’s hurricanes. Smaller, locally-owned businesses are reopening their doors after being closed for months, while others are opening for the first time, he said.
“It’s a reminder that even though what we went through was catastrophic and unprecedented, things are going to be OK,” he said. “Larger employers are really important to our economy, but there’s something special about a small local business coming online. They give us our flavor and a unique character.”
Hunter said several lakefront improvement projects will continue into next year, including renovations to the former Harrahs’ Casino parking garage, and construction of the Crying Eagle Brewing restaurant and microbrewery and the $20 million Port Wonder project. Port Wonder, which will house a new children’s museum and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries science center, broke ground June 30 and should open by late spring or early summer of 2023.
“When it comes to lakefront development, some people will only believe it when they see it,” Hunter said. “In 2022, you will start to see (construction) as opposed to just dirt work.”
Repairs to City Hall are about 90 percent complete, Hunter said. The 10th floor remains unoccupied, and the first floor city water office area is still being renovated.
Rumors posted on social media about the former Capital One Tower being demolished within the next 30-60 days are untrue, Hunter said. He said there is no date or timeline set to demolish or renovate the 22-story building that was severely damaged by Hurricane Laura. Hertz Investment Group, a Los Angeles-based real estate firm, has owned the building since 2007 and remains in litigation with its insurance company.
“We have communicated with the owners and have expressed very passionately that the city is very concerned about the building,” Hunter said. “The city will use every legal tool to make sure that building is addressed in some form or fashion in a timely manner.”
Hunter acknowledged the history of the Capital One Tower, but he said it can’t continue to sit in its current state of disrepair.
“It pains me to say that, but it shouldn’t continue to be the first welcome sign to the city,” he said. “Lake Charles will survive without the Capital One Tower.”
Hunter said the city will continue to push for a proper federal response to aid in long-term hurricane recovery. However, he said as more time passes, that window shrinks.
“We shouldn’t be holding our breath,” he said. “If it comes, that’s great. It’s needed, and it will help a lot of people. But we’ve had a lot happen in our country between Hurricane Laura and today.”
Hunter said the city will have to seek creative ways to secure recovery funding. In November, Hunter and Gov. John Bel Edwards announced an $11.3 million housing program for hurricane victims. Money for the program comes from the city, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Louisiana Housing Corp.
Residents will see plenty of activity next year with hurricane-damaged homes and businesses being demolished, Hunter said. He said City Hall wants to work with residents and business owners who are still struggling with their insurance companies.
“But now, we’ve reached a point where we have to address these structures,” he said. “We can’t let them linger and create additional blight. You will start to see 10-12 demos per (City Council) meeting on an agenda. Typically, we have one to two.”
Hunter said Lake Charles is on a path to a robust recovery, something he hasn’t seen this quickly in other cities that endured major natural disasters.
“We’ve had a lackluster response from the federal government, but I am proud of the people in Southwest Louisiana,” he said. “I give them the lionshare of the credit for the recovery we have achieved so far.”