God's work, or man's? Storm-battered Louisianans are unsure

Lake Charles (United States) (AFP) –


Daniel Schexnayder has water up to his ankles as he stands outside, surveying damage to his home inflicted by Hurricane Laura six weeks before Louisiana was pummeled by a second storm, Delta.

But he still does not believe in climate change.

"I'm on the other side. I'm with Trump," the 58-year-old carpenter said only hours after Delta had rumbled destructively through the tiny Louisiana town of Iowa, just outside Lake Charles.

And yet scientists agree that global warming is a proven phenomenon, caused by man and rendering hurricanes both more frequent and more violent.

That phenomenon has made coastal regions in the US, including southern Louisiana, far more vulnerable to powerful storms like Laura, in late August, and Delta -- with potentially dire consequences for human safety and health, the US economy and the ecology.

"There's good scientists and bad scientists," Schexnayder said as he climbed out of his pickup truck with a can of gasoline to power the generator at his mother's home.

He said he has learned to live with hurricanes. "It ain't nothing you can do but to go with it. And take it as it comes. I mean, we don't have no control over it, only the good Lord does."

In the streets of nearby Lake Charles, makeshift signs pleading for divine protection were seen everywhere ahead of Delta's arrival; similar faith-based appeals seemed to be on everyone's lips.

Louisiana is part of the "Bible Belt" in the US South, a conservative and deeply religious region that voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

A 2020 study by a Yale University team found that of the US states most affected by hurricanes, Louisiana is home to the highest percentage of climate-change skeptics (55 percent).

But most Louisianans interviewed by AFP lacked Schexnayder's certainty.

Many people said they did not know what caused global warming and the natural catastrophes of recent years.

"It very well could be (global warming)," said Tracy Fontenot, adding, "It may be it's just, you know, God's way of doing his thing."

"And I don't know what we could do to avoid it," added the 55-year-old educator.

- Rising sea levels -

But on Friday morning, amid the heavy rain that presaged Delta's arrival, Kristy Olmster, a 41-year-old electric utility employee, said there was no doubt in her mind.

"Global warming is a real thing," she grimaced, while installing plywood sheets over her windows and door.

On a nearby street, 56-year-old Arthur Durham, a Texas-born restaurateur, shared that opinion.

"I think those who deny that there's climate change are pretty foolish," he said.

"I mean, it's pretty apparent. I've lived close to the Gulf Coast for the majority of my life. And, and this -- this is unprecedented. You know, this doesn't happen without man's involvement."

As a supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Durham acknowledges feeling a bit alone in conservative Calcasieu parish, the Louisiana equivalent of a county.

Donald Trump outpolled Hillary Clinton in Calcasieu by more than two-to-one in 2016.

Perhaps, Durham added, economic and cultural factors influence people's views on the environment.

For example, his son evacuated before Delta's arrival to ensure a good internet connection for his training program with Tesla, the electric car maker, but many of Lake Charles's poorer residents fled just to save themselves and their meager belongings.

Even more significant, Durham added, may be the pervasive influence of the petroleum industry.

Louisiana is home to 20 percent of the country's oil-refining capacity. On a clear day in Calcasieu, one can see or hear the sprawling refineries from miles away.

For the thousands who work in the petroleum industry, Durham said, curbs on fossil fuel industries could cost their jobs and livelihood.

Yet those very petroleum companies, with their offshore oil-drilling platforms, are increasingly worried about an unavoidable reality: sea levels are rising and hurricanes have become more frequent, more destructive, and more threatening to their bottom line.