'When are they coming for us?': Elderly, disabled residents stranded for 24 hours after Laura
Dozens of elderly and disabled residents rode out Hurricane Laura alone in their low-income apartments, with some struggling to escape the heavily damaged eight-story complex and others left wandering around rubble with little food and water until their evacuation nearly 24 hours after the storm.
Members of a volunteer Crowdsource Rescue group from Houston found the residents outside the Chateau Du Lac complex Thursday afternoon as they drove the storm-ravaged city looking for those in need.
“There's rubble all over the street like a bomb had gone off,” said Paul Middendorf, a member of the rescue group. “And so we slowed down for that. And then there was just people randomly wandering in this courtyard and sort of out in the parking lot and clearly, they're all elderly.”
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Middendorf said the scene “looked like some sort of retirement facility five years after the apocalypse.”
“The roof’s been ripped off, a huge percentage of the windows are blown out. And there's water all inside the building because all the windows are blown out,” he said.
Dozens of residents, including some in wheelchairs, were in and around the building, Middendorf said, when he and fellow volunteer Michelle Hempton arrived hours into a widespread power outage Thursday in Lake Charles.
"And so there's no more water, there was no more food. And no one had come to check on them," Middendorf said. "This was about three or four in the afternoon."
Some of them were trapped in the hot August heat without electricity on the eight-story building’s higher floors, unable to leave because of their mobility limitations and debris blocking the apartment's stairways.
Some residents were confused, he said, and immediately asked the volunteer rescue crew for food and water, as well as help evacuating the now uninhabitable building.
"They kept asking me when someone was going to come to them. 'When are they coming for us? When are they going to take us somewhere safe? When can we get food and water?'" he said.
"There was a couple of people shouting at us from the eighth floor, you know, that we were shouting back at them, you know, about when food and water were coming," Middendorf said. "But we didn't have exact answers because, you know, the infrastructure there is, is just trashed."
On Friday, the apartment complex with about 200 units was empty and battered like much of the rest of Lake Charles. Dented doors and busted windows marked the few cars left in the parking lot.
The fearsome winds wrenched crepe myrtles from the ground and tore entire sheets of grass turf. Near the entrance, there were signs of the last meal the apartment residents were able to have on the grounds. Gallons of water and milk sat half drunk on tables and a bag of frozen French fries lay open on the ground.
The property's management company offered to help residents evacuate before the storm, said Joe Pappalardo Jr., president of Latter & Blum Property Management. Staff members joined by a sheriff’s deputy, warned residents earlier in the week that they needed to evacuate before the storm, he said.
The management company provided buses to transport residents to a nearby shelter, he said.
“We notified them in advance. We have buses every 15 minutes coming by the property to load people up. We were helping everyone that needed to be helped, and ultimately we had to evacuate ourselves,” Pappalardo said.
Staff evacuated the area Wednesday evening with some residents, but 78 stayed in the building because they could not forcibly remove them even with a mandatory evacuation order in place, according to Pappalardo.
“You cannot make anyone leave their property, and this is what we were advised by the sheriff’s department, who was at the property. You cannot make them leave,” Pappalardo said.
Tanya Maples, one of the residents who weathered the Category 4 hurricane and its aftermath at the complex, said she was never warned by a deputy. She said she received a letter slipped under her door from management telling her to leave.
Maples, a 48-year-old former nurse, has lived in the building for five years after suffering a brain injury.
She said she was afraid to go to a shelter, remembering rumors of assaults in some after Hurricane Katrina. And she said she couldn't use her car to evacuate because she didn't have enough money to wait until it was safe to return home.
“I could have left if I could have afforded it. I couldn’t afford it,” she said.
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The apartment building looked like a “war zone” during the storm and there was water everywhere on the seventh floor of the building where she lived.
“It was like a train constantly coming. Things were hitting the building. The people in the building were so quiet, and everything around us was just destruction,” she said. “We could even see at night all the stucco off the roof and tar paper and everything.”
Maples said she was stuck at the complex until late Thursday because her car was damaged by the storm.
“That’s the first storm in my entire 48 years of living I’ve ever been through, and I don’t ever want to do it again.”
Middendorf said he saw residents who were more able-bodied helping others out of the building.
“It was folks that weren't entirely able-bodied taking care of other people that were less able bodied,” he said. “Practically the phrase of the blind leading the blind, is the elderly taking care of the elderly.”
Some were assisting other residents in wheelchairs with getting around and going to the bathroom while they were alone in the building.
Middendorf said it took hours for emergency responders to come to the residents’ aid after he and Hempton first found them, and ultimately the National Guard arrived and took the residents to emergency shelters.
Pappalardo said some staff returned to the building later Thursday and contacted the National Guard for help. The residents were all evacuated by late Thursday night, he said.
“We all realize the storm’s coming. These people are low income. They don’t have anywhere else to go. They just want to be there. So there’s nothing that we could do,” he said.
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Middendorf said these residents were vulnerable, and shouldn't have been left alone in the storm at the complex. And some may not have understood the necessity to evacuate.
"There was people there with disabilities that couldn't comprehend anything, even if they were told that," he said. "They're there because they can't, they can't fend for themselves. It shouldn't be up to an 80-year-old woman to have to help this person down eight flights of stairs covered in water, metal and debris. It's tragic."
Southern Correspondent Andrew Yawn of The American South contributed to this report.