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'Nothing Left': How back-to-back hurricanes gutted a US town

By Shannon Sims and Eric Roston, Bloomberg News on

Published in Weather News

On the day after Hurricane Delta cut its ruinous path across southern Louisiana, Dick Frerks pointed to a lone 20-foot pylon rising from the bayou and summed up what he'd lost.

"Our house used to be on top of that," said Frerks, who makes his living hauling shrimp and crab from the Gulf of Mexico and lives outside the town of Cameron.

Now Cameron and other nearby hamlets have been virtually wiped off the marshy coast by back-to-back hurricanes that leveled homes and swallowed up vast swaths of land. Six weeks ago, it was Hurricane Laura, which demolished the area's power system, knocked out water service, and flattened buildings. By the time Delta came ashore Friday, there was little left to destroy.

What's happened to Cameron is a taste of what may be coming for other towns along the Gulf Coast as climate change takes hold. Warmer Gulf water and moister air are the kindling for tropical cyclones, helping to make them more ferocious. The 2020 hurricane season isn't over, and it's already produced 25 named storms. That's the most since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina all but drowned New Orleans. At least seven hurricanes have struck Southwestern Louisiana in the last 20 years, twice as many as the previous two decades.

That's forcing Frerks and his neighbors to make painful choices about whether to rebuild in a place that's been battered so many times.

"There's nothing left," said Tressie Smith, who ran a seafood restaurant in Cameron before Laura hit. "Even if I wanted to go back, there's nothing to go back to."

 

Delta, which slammed ashore with winds powerful enough to knock 18-wheelers on their sides, is the latest in a cascade of natural disasters to rattle the U.S. this year. In California, wildfires have burned an unprecedented 4 million acres, sending smoke as far away as Europe. In the Midwest, a line of violent storms known as a derecho ripped a trail of destruction from Iowa to Indiana in August. And in the Southeast, a record 10 hurricanes or tropical storms have made landfall.

Perhaps nowhere in the U.S. are the impacts of climate change as clear as they are in Cameron.

The town is about 200 miles (322 kilometers) west of New Orleans, sandwiched between the brackish marshes of two national wildlife refuges. It's perched just 3 feet above sea level, close enough to the Gulf to taste the salt on the breeze. The nearest city, Lake Charles, is an hour's drive through the bayou.

The area is the epitome of southern Gothic: massive, mossy oaks and marshland littered with rusted boat propellers and populated by alligators. Locals work at oil refineries or on offshore platforms, or operate shrimping boats. When the last census was taken in 2010, Cameron's population was about 400. By the time Hurricane Delta made landfall, only a handful were left to evacuate.

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