A Look At The Importance Of Local Industry During Good Times And Bad

Kerri Cooke Friday, October 8, 2021 Comments Off on A Look At The Importance Of Local Industry During Good Times And Bad
A Look At The Importance Of Local Industry During Good Times And Bad

A Year In Review

By Kerri Cooke

On Aug. 25, the Lake Area Industry Alliance, LAIA, held their first media luncheon since 2019 to discuss the impacts Hurricanes Laura and Delta and COVID-19 have had on the community and how industry has fared and aided the community in its greatest time of need.

The meeting was led by executive director Jim Rock. Guests speakers included Bryan Beam, Calcasieu Parish administrator, and Janie Fruge, CEO of West Calcasieu Cameron Hospital. Another notable attendee was Mike Smith, police juror for District 2. 

As the meeting got underway it was clear that the shadow of what would become Hurricane Ida hung like a black cloud over everyone’s mind. The concern and barely concealed fear clung below the surface of everyone’s professionalism. 

One big ice breaker was the fact that there were two Mike Smiths in attendance — the aforementioned juror and a reporter from The Advocate who has been stationed in SWLA since May to cover hurricane recovery for the publication.

A Year Of Disasters

What began as small talk led Beam to say that SWLA was unfortunate due to the order last year’s natural disasters came in. 

First, COVID-19 came into the picture, which would lead factories to close and reduce their output of materials. This issue made it particularly hard to find adequate materials to rebuild after Hurricanes Laura and Delta. The price of wood skyrocketed, along with things such as garage doors. Shingles ended up on backorder. 

Delta came so quickly on the heels of Laura that the “temporary fixes” SWLA residents had put on their homes, such as tarps, were rendered useless, and more damage was done. When the freeze came earlier this year, many homes that had been abandoned because of Laura had their pipes burst, which had city officials scrambling to find the source of leaks and restore water pressure to residents. Then the May flood caused damage to many homes that had just been repaired from the previous disasters. Beam called it the “perfect storm” of disasters.

In fact, Meagan Hartman, public relations director for Phillips 66, said that the winter freeze actually caused more damage to the local plant than the hurricanes did due to the lost insulation. Fruge said WCCH also had a hard time due to the freeze because the hospital lost water pressure for a much longer period than it did with the hurricanes.  

And the flooding in May was made worse by storm debris clogging sewage lines and drainage laterals. Smith, the police juror, mentioned that people want government to hurry up and clean out the drainage systems before bad weather hits. But what people don’t realize is officials have to receive permission from property owners to get through to many of the drainage laterals. If denied permission, workers must find another way to access the problem area.

Beam said there are 1,600 miles of drainage laterals in Calcasieu Parish, and if you stretched them all out in a line they would stretch all the way from El Paso, Texas, to Jacksonville, Fla. So if you’ve wondered why the drainageways are still congested, know that it will take a significant amount of time to clear every line of debris. Don’t forget the scale of the damage Hurricane Laura did to the area. “We’ve made great progress but it’s hidden because there’s so much to do,” Beam emphasized.

In reference to any tropical development which could threaten SWLA this year, Beam said, “unlike other years, we are very vulnerable.” 

Jessica Saxby, communications specialist for Citgo, made the point that not only is our infrastructure vulnerable, but the mental toll that the last year has taken on residents is considerable. She mentioned going out of town and realizing she had grown “fatigued” living in an environment where you still see damaged buildings on almost every block.

A Plague Of Shortages

When the flood put many Lake Area cars out of commission, the country was dealing with both a car shortage and a car rental shortage. The production of new cars has been reduced because of a pandemic-induced chip shortage, and car rental agencies sold off much of their inventory due to the drop in travel associated with pandemic restrictions. After Lake Charles flooded, you were lucky if you could find a rental car on any lot. Also, car prices have skyrocketed, so even if you wanted to buy a new or used car, inventory was limited. 

Hurricanes Laura and Delta caused a housing shortage in SWLA that still lingers today. Hartman said that summer interns at Phillips 66 had to stay with employees due to the housing crisis.

COVID-19 and the exit of a portion of the population from SWLA has led to a labor shortage. And these shortages are not limited to fast food joints or restaurants. Beam said the school system is dealing with a lack of teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other faculty. Rock said there are shortages in jobs across the board from a need for accountants to workers at local plants. A shortage of skilled workers at the plants is not only due to the events of the last year, but also the fact that many workers were eligible for retirement this year and took it. Fruge said there has been a similar issue at WCCH as seven employees have already retired this year.

WCCH And Industry Codependency

Once the year had been properly discussed and recapped, Fruge began to speak about how industry has been instrumental and even vital to the health of the community.

Fruge began by pointing out the similarities between the operations of plants and the operation of a hospital. Both professions use PPE, including N95 masks and protective clothing; both operate on a 24-hour schedule; and both operate with high safety standards.

Fruge said when the first COVID surge happened in March, 2020, hospitals, clinics and nursing homes were totally unprepared for it. Suddenly there was a drastic increase in the need for PPE in places that usually didn’t require it. Fruge said she made a call to Rock and received an “overwhelming response.” WCCH received so many masks, gowns and respirators that they were able to distribute materials to clinics and nursing homes.

When hurricane season came around and SWLA was pounded by Laura, Fruge said the hospital had a generator under the building that would allow the building to operate for seven days. It was installed after Hurricane Rita with monies from local and state government. 

Fruge said she stayed at WCCH for 16 straight days, and industry helped provide the hospital and employees with “fuel, water and housing.” Industry donated $320,000 to WCCH and also provided a portable building for their Hackberry clinic. Fruge estimates these two donations add up to between $600,000 and $700,000. Donations allowed WCCH to continue operating and treat patients who needed medical care after the hurricanes due to accidents.

The fourth wave of COVID-19 infections in Louisiana has been extra hard for local healthcare workers and facilities. As of Aug. 25, WCCH was caring for 40 COVID patients, which is 70 percent of their patient volume. Fruge said the first surge saw a high of 36 patients, and it breaks her heart to see people dying of a disease we now have a vaccine for. She says, “prevention is key, and the only tool we have against COVID-19 right now is vaccination.” 

Industry And The Local Economy

Not only does industry provide support to the community during times of disaster, it’s the backbone of the local economy. Industrial plants not only pay a large amount of property and sales tax (17 out of the top 20 property tax payers in Calcasieu Parish belong to LAIA), they provide a good salary for employees, who then spread their money around in local cities and towns. According to a study by Dan Groft, director of the H.C. Drew Center at McNeese, industry accounts for 11,000 direct jobs, which in turn add 20,000 in the community in areas such as the service industry. Tax dollars are vital in the upkeep of local infrastructure. 

The Future

When Mike Smith, the reporter from the Advocate, asked what the future of industry looks like in SWLA, Rock replied that the market is “consumer-driven” and demand for LNG is consistently growing as more and more countries switch from dirtier energy sources, such as coal, to natural gas, a cleaner form of energy.

With several LNG projects still on the horizon in SWLA, industry is only expected to grow. After all, the Calcasieu Ship Channel, our access to the Gulf of Mexico and our abundance of natural gas puts us in a prime position to be a major exporter of LNG to locations around the world.

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