Atlanta Falcons GM Terry Fontenot wants to help rebuild weather-ravaged Louisiana hometown

Terry Fontenot flanked by his wife, Tanya, on his left and his parents, Roy and Jacquetta. Courtesy of Terry Fontenot

When Tanya Fontenot drove to her childhood home last September, her parents warned her about the nails. They were everywhere -- on roads, in grass, hidden in crevices throughout Lake Charles, Louisiana.

What had once been attached to homes and roofs, keeping the dwellings of Lake Charles together, were scattered everywhere, torn asunder by one of the worst hurricanes to hit the mainland United States in the last century.

Mike and Josetta Prudhome, Tanya's parents, had lived in a tan house with the painted-white front porch for decades. Mike loved the land, so he could have outdoor activities. Josetta had a she-shed built on the property as her private place to go and sew. Tanya hadn't lived there for years -- her family was then in New Orleans and now Atlanta, where her husband, Terry, is the general manager of the Atlanta Falcons.

Weeks after Hurricane Laura devastated southwest Louisiana, her grandfather died. She and their four children traveled back home to bury her grandfather and see her family. It was then she understood the damage Laura had done. And the nails that were everywhere.

Throughout Terry's final season in New Orleans and in his first year with Atlanta, as he has tried to reconstruct the Falcons, Lake Charles has never been far from Terry's thoughts. His parents, who have been displaced since Laura hit last August, are still there. So is his wife's family, and so many people who helped make Terry who he is today.

Tanya and Terry grew up in Lake Charles. They met before one of his junior varsity football games his sophomore year at LaGrange High School. On their first date, Terry drove to Tanya's home -- the same way Tanya drove up now. They've had a quarter-century of shared experiences in the place.

"When you turn into our driveway, the house that we grew up in is gone," Tanya said. "So that's tough to see. It was tough to see the schools and tough to see everything that we are used to and everything that we grew up with gone and leveled and all the devastation around."

Their story isn't atypical for Lake Charles -- at least not in the past year, where southwest Louisiana dealt with four natural disaster emergencies: Hurricane Laura in August 2020, Hurricane Delta six weeks later, a winter storm in February and then major flooding in May.

In May, The Weather Channel called Lake Charles "America's most weather-battered city."

The combination of the four forced thousands from their homes, shut down businesses and left a community unsure what would happen and what could come next. Some started to rebuild only to have the next disaster wipe out their progress. Each successive weather event left many in Lake Charles simply unable to rebuild.

What Tanya saw was Laura's destruction -- the first and most damaging of the disasters, a Category 4 Hurricane causing about $19 billion in damage in the United States with $17.5 billion in Louisiana. Laura's wind speed of 150 mph was the strongest to hit southwest Louisiana since records started in 1851, according to weather.gov.

"What we have been through over the last year is unprecedented," Lake Charles mayor Nic Hunter said. "It's never happened in American history, to have this many federally declared natural disasters in a 10-month span all in the middle of the greatest pandemic in the last 100 years.

"And the federal response has certainly been less than stellar."

When Laura made landfall on Aug. 27, no one could have anticipated what would happen. Lake Charles, sitting 30 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico near the Texas border on Interstate 10, had endured hurricanes before.

The midsized city of 84,872 and its citizens -- like many in Louisiana -- have been through enough hurricanes to understand they are part of life. Jacquetta Fontenot, Terry's mother, said she lived through her first one, Audrey, when she was 5.

When you're used to something, you never quite know how to react. Typically, Jacquetta and Roy Fontenot stayed through hurricanes. Same with the Prudhomes.

Roy stayed home during Hurricane Rita in 2005. After that, he swore he'd never try to ride out a hurricane again. Not worth it. Except when the next one came, the familiar thought remained: "This is your home." How could you leave it?

"I have sat through hurricanes. I let the family go and would stay home," Roy said. "I don't know what I was thinking I'd do. And this doesn't occur to you until the wind starts really getting high and the structures, the house, begins to move. You think about, 'Why did I stay here? What am I going to do? Am I going to hold the house down? Am I going to keep the shingles from tearing off the roof?'

"There's absolutely nothing I can do here except be scared."

That was initially Roy and Jacquetta's plan for Laura. Then one of Terry's sisters, Tamekia Barnes, who lives in Dallas, reached out and said absolutely not. She bought Roy and Jacquetta plane tickets, told them what time the flight was leaving and that they best be on the plane.

Despite their hesitation, on their 42nd wedding anniversary, Aug. 25, 2020, Roy and Jacquetta boarded the flight for Dallas. They wouldn't return full time to the city until Feb. 5.

"There's a time to go. There's definitely a time where it's too late and I've experienced that and that's something I've never had a desire to do a second time," Roy said. "So when things happen like that, you have to know what you're going to do and you have to get it done because once it's too late, it's too late.

"And too late happens immediately."

Three days after Laura, Barnes' husband, Eddie, returned to Lake Charles to survey the damage. The roof started to cave in. A week later, Eddie and Roy visited again, went inside the home and saw the garage, kitchen and laundry room needed to be completely gutted.

Their home could be salvaged, but it would take a long time to get done. Like many others in Lake Charles, they filed claims with insurance companies. Unlike many others -- Hunter said the housing situation in Lake Charles remains one of the biggest rebuilding issues -- they haven't had many issues with their claims.

"Our condition," Jacquetta said, "was unlivable."

Terry admits he was "numb" to it then. Having grown up in Lake Charles, playing college football at Tulane and spending his professional career in New Orleans with the Saints' front office, he'd experienced hurricanes.

He'd lived through Katrina. And Rita. And so many others. When Laura started making news and a state of emergency was declared, he reached out to his parents and family. Asked if they were OK, if they wanted to leave and if they wanted to go to New Orleans. Then he went back to work.

"You just don't know if this is going to be a bad one and what's going to happen," Terry said. "Or if it's going to be one that goes through and you lose power for 24 hours. You just never know."

Even in the weeks after, when his family started explaining the damage he didn't fully grasp it. At least not until Tanya and the kids went back and checked in on her parents, who had ridden out Laura in a hotel, and saw their home destroyed. Tanya told Terry about families living in tents, lines for food and how this didn't look like the Lake Charles they knew.

The damage was that extensive.

He stayed in touch and asked questions, but after taking his job with the Falcons after the season, he hadn't been able to get back to Lake Charles himself until this summer, when his family spent 48 hours in the city. It was then he truly understood the devastation.

He saw tarps covering homes where there were once roofs. He ran into friends who told him they were living in trailers in the front yards of where their homes used to be. He drove past his middle school and high school, seeing how much damage they'd incurred. The hardest part was driving past Tanya's home -- and seeing it gone. The memories came back -- playing basketball in the backyard and barbeques at the home. Their first date.

Terry is not an emotional person. Driving through Lake Charles, he continually thought about one thing: How can he help? Can he use his platform to bring attention to his hometown trying to recover but still nowhere close to what it once was?

"I am a product of my community so it's a situation where I wouldn't be the person I am now without Lake Charles and everything I had there," Terry said. "So it is tough just to see it not in a good place.

"Right now, when you go back, whether it's either one of the schools or Lake Charles as a whole, when you go back and see it in that kind of shape, it is tough."

Terry and Tanya plan on helping -- sifting through ideas of what, exactly, they can do. Whether they'll put their efforts toward helping the schools in the community, where Jacquetta used to work as a bookkeeper, or something else. Even though they haven't formulated a plan yet -- Terry's first year as Atlanta's general manager has taken up most of his attention -- Lake Charles is never too far from his head or his heart.

Help has been a tricky word in Lake Charles, a city experiencing the most unprecedented of unprecedented times, the world seemingly beating up the city at every turn.

It has left Hunter, the mayor, hopeful in seeing the resiliency of the citizens and exasperated by the lack of assistance his city has received. In the days after Laura, politicians piled into the city promising to help. They told Hunter his city would receive the supplemental disaster aid that so many other Americans cities and states have received in the past.

FEMA was on site, doing what it typically does post-disaster. But the supplemental aid -- that's where Hunter had hope. He told his constituents he was promised there'd be help. Then a month went by. Two. Six. A year.

Nothing substantial from Washington.

"We feel forgotten by the federal government," Hunter said.

Two weeks ago, Louisiana -- and Lake Charles -- received supplemental disaster assistance. Typically, Hunter said, if a region receives half of what its long-term recovery estimates are from the government, that's considered a win. Hunter said Louisiana estimated the area would need $3 billion to fully recover.

The government, almost 14 months to the day after Laura made landfall, gave Louisiana $594 million for Laura and Delta relief -- a number far short of what the area needs and didn't take into account the winter ice storm or May flooding. It's about a billion dollars short of what they'd hoped for.

And it will make a long recovery process even longer.

It's left Hunter and the local government searching for answers and ways to get creative to help its residents. The city's bigger employers have committed to returning. The biggest issue, Hunter said, remains housing. They've been aggressive in going after contractors who have been fraudulent with their work or their services, creating a contractor fraud team while informing homeowners to pay attention to who they are hiring, when they are paying them and how they are paying them.

"The other side of that is we still have so many residents who do not have the available funds to fully re-establish themselves in housing and that has been the missing piece," Hunter said. "That has been why we've been so desperate for supplemental disaster aid."

Hunter didn't want to prognosticate when his city will return to what it was before. There are areas of Lake Charles, Hunter said, that have recovered and look like Laura and Delta never happened. There are other areas of the parish where Laura looks like it hit a week ago, not a year.

"I do not believe there is any scenario where Lake Charles does not recover," Hunter said. "But it's going to be a longer road than it should be and it's going to be a more cumbersome road than it should be."

Roy and Jacquetta popped on a video conference call from their temporary home at the Country Club Cottages in Lake Charles -- the first time they'd seen their son since the summer. Tanya logged on from the Fontenot home in Georgia, their children coming home from school, seeing their grandparents and saying hello.

It has been a tough year, although Jacquetta says she knows they are more fortunate than most. They haven't had the insurance company fights. After questions about a contractor they were working with, one of her daughters flew in to oversee the project. The hope is to be back in their home by the start of 2022. Tanya's parents are in the process of deciding whether they are going to rebuild at all or move to an already-built property and not deal with the hassle.

While Lake Charles is recovering, it is vastly different. Going to church has become more of a casual endeavor instead of wearing their Sunday best. One of Roy's closest friends in the city used to walk by their garage, where he'd stop and they'd talk for hours.

That doesn't happen anymore. They aren't sure if it'll ever happen again. Even returning to the city on a permanent basis became a battle of emotions.

"I didn't want to come back to Lake Charles, being perfectly honest," Jacquetta said. "The only reason I came back to Lake Charles was my husband, who like Tanya's dad, wants to be in Lake Charles. I do not want to be in Lake Charles anymore.

"I see why people are so depressed. They don't talk about that but depression, when I first came back, the heaviness and that depression spirit was just very, very bad. I see that."

Roy admitted he has questions about their long-term standing there, too. "It's not the same anymore," he says, lamenting what they had -- from relationships to a sense of community -- that doesn't quite feel like it once did. But he's still not ready to move. The people they know haven't all returned. This is where they spent their lives, where they raised their children and where home had been.

Usually Thanksgiving was their holiday to host -- all seven Fontenot children invited to come from across the country back home. This year, it'll be at Terry and Tanya's instead. It's just part of the adjustment. The frustration they are all dealing with, both in Lake Charles and from afar. They want to help and provide for a place that has meant so much to them. But at what cost? With everything that has changed, even though Lake Charles will always been in their hearts, do they want to stay?

"It does not feel like home anymore. It's bad," Jacquetta said. "So many people are gone and with COVID on top of that, it's just not home anymore.

"It just doesn't feel like home anymore, you know."