Everyone knew Rosalie Lewis as the first Black woman postal service supervisor in Louisiana. Her husband, John Lewis, was a Kroger truck driver who knew every bayou backroad. On Thursday, they hunkered down with three other family members to ride out the historic Hurricane Laura, with winds so powerful it shredded nearby homes. They survived; their house did too.
Hours later, four of them were dead from generator fumes. John Lewis died in a hospital days later.
“It’s an awful reminder that even when you do everything right, these things can happen,” Frances Spencer, a cousin who’d heard her relatives were fine right after landfall, told BuzzFeed News on Saturday. “People forget that often the death comes in the aftermath.”
As of Sunday, 14 people in Louisiana were confirmed dead after the Category 4 hurricane’s 150 mph winds — the strongest to ever strike the state — threw homes from their foundations and substantially damaged enough infrastructure that hundreds of thousands of people will live without water and electricity for weeks.
The subsequent thick, sticky heat and rain drove residents to power up portable generators to keep their bodies, food, and medication cool. As a result, eight people in Louisiana died from carbon monoxide poisoning, their ages ranging from 24 to 84. In Texas, at least four people died from generator fumes.
When placed inside or in a confined space, carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas emitted from generators can turn deadly within minutes. But in the chaotic and stressful aftermath of a storm, residents often forget the danger — despite early and ongoing warnings from officials.
The family is still trying to figure out how and why this happened. Spencer said the generator was in the garage and somehow, she said, the door leading into the house got cracked open.
At 56, Kim Lewis Evans — Rosalie and John’s only daughter — was the youngest victim, officials told BuzzFeed News. Her husband, Chris Evans, and Rosalie’s brother, Clyde Handy, are also dead.
When the paramedics showed up, John was the only one breathing, but barely. He is in critical condition and was transferred to a hospital in Alexandria where there are specialists in carbon monoxide poisoning, his granddaughter Caitlyn Lewis told BuzzFeed News. He died a few days later, his family said.
John, Caitlyn’s “pawpaw,” drove 18-wheelers for Kroger stores and always knew the secret road to take to avoid traffic. He told her he was proud of her every time they spoke, because she had moved to New Orleans to study.
“He always pushed me to keep going beyond the limits of our hometown,” she wrote in a Facebook tribute. “Never settle.”
Rosalie, 81, was a vivacious matriarch and was quick to remind her 17 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren that she “might be old, but I’m not too old to throw.” Sassy but inspiring, she was a leader in the church community known for her rousing, motivational speeches and took “Sunday best to a new level,” owning suits in every color with hats to match, two of her granddaughters told BuzzFeed News. She left behind a legacy after working her way up from a mail carrier to become the first Black woman supervisor in the state, they said, and she taught them to believe they could do anything.
“She taught me to set an example and to prove that Black women are just as strong, just as smart, and just as capable,” said Caitlyn, who is currently raising a 1-year-old while in her second year of law school. “There aren’t enough words to describe her exuberance. To know her was to love her.”
Rosalie and John were together most of their lives. They grew up in Lake Charles, now a hub of 80,000 people and known for its marshy byways and casinos, and raised their five kids there, too.
Kim Lewis Evans was their only girl. She loved perfume and purses. One Christmas, her four brothers surprised her with a real Louis Vuitton. She was known as “her brother’s keeper,” one of her nieces said. The 56-year-old treated all of them like her own and took credit for their wit and attitudes.
“We all had a special bond with her that made us feel unique in her eyes,” Caitlyn said. “We definitely got our sassiness from her, and if any of us had a problem with someone, she had a problem with them too.”
Her husband, “Uncle Chris,” was a man of laughter and was known for his “famous” gumbo. He played pranks but also helped his nieces and nephews out of any situation, with no judgment.
They go on like this, the heartfelt, funny, and sorrowful Facebook tributes and exchanges from a family who had plans to get together and catch up, until COVID-19 happened.
In conversations with BuzzFeed News, family members tried to describe processing the loss of four family members at once, while also trying to find shelter themselves, or take in their elderly parents who need medical care.
“I don’t know whether I am coming or going,” one said. “I am finally at my breaking point,” another wrote.
Sitting in a pickup outside the large, sturdy home where her relatives died, Spencer couldn’t believe how great the house looked. Save for the plywood boards covering the windows, it would be nearly impossible to tell that the old house just went through the strongest storm in state history.
“It’s one of those hit-and-miss things,” she said from the car. “Their house looks immaculate and a couple blocks over, entire areas look like matchsticks and entire oak and pine trees are uprooted. That’s part of what makes this so hard.”
A freelance journalist who now lives in Baton Rouge, Spencer said driving through the place she grew up was “sobering.” The community was a “developing hotspot for COVID” and now its largest hospital, Lake Charles Memorial, had to evacuate all its patients, the governor said at a press conference. Only its ER was in use.
“Many people who had to evacuate were already unemployed due to COVID or couldn’t afford to stay evacuated because of how tight money is now,” she said. “They’re now facing a double whammy.”
Louisiana still doesn’t know for sure how many people died in Katrina in 2005. The number hangs at around 1,800. A month later, Hurricane Rita touched down and caused $25 billion more in damage. Three years later, Ike came roaring through. But, residents say, Laura was different. “It’s like apples and oranges,” Spencer said and makes Katrina seem “mild.”
A vast swath of the state won’t have basic utilities for weeks. As of Saturday night, more than 360,000 homes had no power. The hurricane damaged 82 water systems and residents told BuzzFeed News they waited six hours in line to get a tank of gas.
“This is a major infrastructure event,” Mike Steele, communications director for the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, told BuzzFeed News. “It could take 15 days to several weeks to restore power to survivors.”
Thousands of people have been forced to scatter, searching for scarce hotel rooms and cramming into homes around and out of the state with family and friends. After Laura ruined their roof, Spencer’s parents, who are in their eighties, are now staying with her. She said they are “ill and frail” and afraid. Her father built the house and they’ve had the same telephone number since 1976. She spent the day doing math, counting how many days until their prescriptions run out.
Desperate to salvage what is left of their lives, other residents around the Lake Charles area told BuzzFeed News they’ve been trying to find blue tarps to cover the holes in their homes and businesses so they can move forward. They don’t have much of a choice.
Nearly 50% of Lake Charles is Black, and Spencer said that like her relatives, many families have been there for generations. Now, much of it is unrecognizable. It’s exhausting and painful, said Spencer, to keep getting knocked down and back up, but they do.