Gus Milligan didn’t sleep the night of Aug. 27. A freshman outfielder from Lake Charles, he stayed awake inside his room at LSU’s Nicholson Gateway Apartments, worrying that one of the strongest hurricanes on record to hit the United States might make his hometown unrecognizable.
Once daybreak arrived and pictures emerged showing the damage Hurricane Laura left in its wake, Milligan wanted to help the relief effort. He contacted coach Paul Mainieri, who supported Milligan’s plan to collect debris around the city. Milligan then coordinated with senior pitcher Matthew Beck, and they organized a group of teammates to spend their next off day in Lake Charles.
Practice and class forced the players to wait a week, but on the morning of Sept. 2, they gathered in the parking lot outside Alex Box Stadium. Senior pitcher Trent Vietmeier brought a pallet of bottled water in the bed of his truck. A dozen players climbed into three pick-ups and began the drive toward Milligan’s hometown. The destruction became obvious as they approached land that was in the direct path of the storm.
“It was normal, normal, normal and then you started seeing some trees knocked over, some houses messed up and once we got into Lake Charles, it was a real different look,” Milligan said. “There’s pretty much not a single tree standing.”
Milligan paused. He sighed.
“It was a sad sight to see,” he said.
Imagine the seats of Tiger Stadium as a checkerboard.
The players spent six hours picking up tree limbs and debris. They removed a tarp from the baseball field at Barbe High School, where freshman outfielder and pitcher Brody Drost went to school. They visited St. Louis Catholic, Milligan’s alma mater, and cleaned a nearby residence for priests, stacking fallen branches on the side of the road. They delivered the pallet of bottled water to a local charity.
“But there’s still power lines in the streets,” junior Drew Bianco said.
Seeing his high school — a place he loved, the same school his mom and her siblings graduated from — hurt Milligan. St. Louis Catholic sustained significant damage. Pictures posted by the school on its Instagram account the day after the hurricane showed hallways covered in wet insulation, missing sections of the roof and piles of bricks ripped from exterior walls. Shingles scattered across the grass.
“I love Lake Charles,” Milligan said. “I love the people there. It just sucks, because nobody deserves to have something like that happen in their hometown.”
Milligan was not the only LSU athlete affected by Hurricane Laura. The LSU athletic department has deep connections to southwest Louisiana, and in the weeks since the hurricane made landfall, it has continued helping the relief effort.
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Football players and golfers collected supplies in parking lots. The athletic department twice delivered goods to Lake Charles using the football team’s 18-wheeler equipment truck. Coach Ed Orgeron, whose sons played football at McNeese State, let McNeese football coach Frank Wilson and his family stay at Orgeron’s house in Mandeville for a couple nights.
“It’s very hard to watch and to see,” Orgeron said. “But you know what? I know those people are resilient — just like we are — and they’re going to bounce back.”
Five days after the baseball players visited Lake Charles, the men’s basketball team spent a day distributing supplies at three locations around the city. The team’s leadership group wanted to help, so the program partnered with McNeese State basketball and the United Cajun Navy.
The basketball players gathered around two buses at 6 a.m. last Monday. Bottles of water and Powerade originally bought for the basketball players filled compartments underneath the seats. The United Cajun Navy provided a refrigerated 18-wheeler with pet food, milk and other necessities. The truck stopped outside Lafayette, because the city had the last open gas station.
Driving further toward Lake Charles, coach Will Wade noticed billboards and signs crumpled into piles of metal along the interstate. Power lines laid on the side of the road. Wade had made the drive before for basketball tournaments, spending as much time there as anywhere else in the state. He called it “indescribable devastation.”
Matilda Evans squealed with delight when she learned it was a reporter on the phone asking about her son.
The team spent about the day handing out supplies at three locations around the city. It spent the majority of its time at the Southwest Louisiana Center for Health Services. Across the street, Wade said, the second story of a house rested in a neighbor’s backyard. Another home was ripped from its foundation.
Wade spoke with city officials and people arriving for supplies. Cars formed lines through the parking lot. A family of seven told Wade about sleeping in their car. Another family came back after evacuating to see their house. It didn’t exist anymore, so they planned to restart their lives in New Orleans.
“You feel helpless,” Wade said. “I think we did about 400 cars in the time we were there, and we left and the cars were still around the block. They’re still waiting for hours on hours.”
Wade stressed the importance of helping southwest Louisiana as the hurricane slips further into the past. Full recovery will take years, so he asked people to remain attentive to what people need, assist however they can and consider those displaced by the storm.
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“We’ve got to be there and do what we do best in Louisiana,” Wade said. “Help our neighbors.”
LSU’s contribution to the relief effort will continue. Wade said LSU has helped McNeese State’s men’s basketball team find hotel rooms and practice courts in Baton Rouge for the next month to six weeks and sometimes, Wade said, McNeese State will practice at LSU.
The baseball team plans to return to Lake Charles this weekend, first to hand out 300 gallons of jambalaya at the AT&T construction yard on Saturday.
Milligan believes his hometown will bounce back in time. He called the residents of southwest Louisiana “resilient people,” but right now, as the city embarks on a long recovery, he said they need help.
“Pray,” Milligan said. “Send your love to Lake Charles. And if in any way possible, donate.”