The Slatest

“I Guess You Could Say I’m Numb”

When a pandemic hits up against a hurricane in a country suffering an economic downturn with a health care system that’s impossible to navigate.

A street is seen strewn with debris and downed power lines.
Lake Charles, where Welsh and his family live, after Hurricane Laura passed through the area Thursday. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Chad Welsh lives in Sulphur, Louisiana, a suburb of Lake Charles. He and his family, like so many others in his family, made the decision to evacuate as Hurricane Laura approached the Gulf Coast. Slate spoke with Welsh to learn what it is like to evacuate during a pandemic and face a potential major loss during a major economic crisis. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Molly Olmstead: When did you realize you would have to evacuate?

Chad Welsh: I didn’t believe it was going to come because I’ve lived in Louisiana all my life. I’m 45. I didn’t think anything of it. I said, “that isn’t gonna come here.” Because they always say it is, and it doesn’t. But that morning, Monday morning, my dad called me and said, “We’ve got to go, they just put a mandatory evacuation [order].” And we just had to pack and grab everything. It was my wife and my son—he’s 16—and my mom and my dad in a car. We followed each other in a caravan.

Where are you now?

We’re in Waco, Texas. It took us seven and a half hours to get to Waco. That was the only place that we could find a hotel at a reasonable price. We didn’t think it would be bad, so we were just trying to find a place Sunday night, Monday night, so we had to last-minute find a place. We’re at a Holiday Inn Express. And luckily, the people here were nice: we were only supposed to be here for two nights, but they’re letting us stay here another night. We were all having to bunch up in one room. I was on this little couch. My wife had to sleep on the floor, and we switched back and forth. Her thighs were hurting, our sides were hurting, my neck is hurting. Now we’ve finally got our own room. So we have our room and they have their own room, my mom and dad.

How long have you been living in Sulphur?

We’ve been living there about 15 years. I’ve been working at the local casino, and, well, we got hit bad by COVID. And I had high blood pressure, so I couldn’t go back to work when they called us back, because I’m one of the individuals that has to stay home. And they laid me off on the 15th of August, after 15 years of service.

What was it like getting ready to evacuate?

The bad thing about it was we just got on Medicaid. And it was an issue trying to get my wife’s blood pressure medication. I was worried she was going to have a high blood pressure problem because she had two pills left. Walgreens wasn’t even going to give us the medication, they were going to charge us $400 out of pocket. So we had to come over here and try to find some money. I have high blood pressure too, but I had a 90-day supply, and I’m good for another 30 days. I had to buy her five pills to last—$20 for five pills.

What was the evacuation like for you, financially?

The total for two nights was $200-something. We had to get gas. We’re trying to save money, so we went to the Walmart, and all we’ve been having is like sandwiches, stuff like that. We spent about $40 the other night just trying to get a little lunch meat.

I had to pay my electric bill, and the electric bill charges $323, and I haven’t told my wife, but I haven’t paid the house payment since March. And we owe $7,400. They’ve been deferring the payments. I’ve been going in the red, and my dad’s been given me money, but he got laid off too. He worked as an electrician, but they laid him off and he’s 65 years old. The only thing that might help us is FEMA is going to be given out hotel vouchers around here, so we can get a free night in the hotel.

Have you been worried about COVID during the evacuation?

Oh, yeah. Because I don’t even know what it’s like over in this city with COVID. I haven’t had time to research it. But we wear the masks everywhere we go. We have just stayed in the hotel. I feel safer now, [the hotel is] very good. A congregation of people outside when we first got here didn’t have masks on. But I think someone called the cops on them, because the cops came.

What have you been doing since you got to Waco?

Basically all we’ve been doing is stay in the hotel, on the phone, trying to see what’s going on. Yesterday I stayed up until about 3 or 4 a.m. watching the Weather Channel. We’re trying to get updates: you know, how your house is—we don’t we don’t know yet. We don’t have pictures, so I’m not seeing some of the damage at all. You know, your mind starts to imagine. I have a cousin that’s going to go look, but we don’t know if we have any damage yet. We’ve got to wait, because with all the power lines out on the ground, they’re not going to let us in. They’ve got the roads closed going into Lake Charles. So we probably will stay here until we can try to find someplace else, someplace cheaper, maybe.

One of my friends in San Antonio said they’ve got a voucher for two nights free from FEMA. We have to search in the area where we would go to register. They give you an arm band, and then you’ve got to come back later and pick up a voucher. You have to go in there, with all those people.

How have you been feeling during all this?

I guess you could say [I’m] numb. At first you don’t know what’s going on. I try not to think about it. I have bad anxiety attacks. Driving over here, I almost had to pull over on the side of the road because I felt like I couldn’t breathe. You sometimes have a sick feeling in your stomach, like you’re going to throw up. Like yeah you might be comfortable right now, but the stuff you had to deal with—you had to put yourself in a financial strain to be comfortable for that time. But once you get home, you don’t know what you’re gonna get. Once they say we can go home, if we have a home, we might be there’s two weeks without electricity in Louisiana’s heat. That’s not comfortable. It’s not comfortable not knowing if you have a home left to go home to. Especially when you don’t have a job.

What would you do?

We’d have to get in touch with insurance. We do have insurance on the house. I would stay with [my parents]. But it gets stressful when you have all those families on one roof. So we would have to figure out what to do with the building. Would we move? I have some friendly people on Twitter—one person sent me $50, another person sent me $25 on CashApp, and I wasn’t expecting that.