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‘In the worst of times, you see the best of humanity’

In wake of Hurricane Laura, McNeese student-athletes and staff pitch in to help rebuild community while donations pour in from nearby colleges

It’s been more than a month since Hurricane Laura ripped through southwest Louisiana, leaving a nearly 50-mile path of destruction. 

McNeese State University is still feeling that pain. So is the university’s home of Lake Charles, a city of about 80,000 people, many who bleed McNeese blue and gold. 

Much of the university and the city were damaged or destroyed by the Category 4 hurricane, reported to be the strongest to hit Louisiana since 1856. Sustained winds were as high as 150 mph, while gusts reached 180 mph. Nearly a million people in the Gulf Coast region lost electricity due to the storm. More than 1.5 million were issued evacuation orders. 

“The struggle is real,” said Heath Schroyer, the McNeese men’s basketball head coach and interim athletics director.

It’s very real on McNeese’s campus, which suffered an estimated $200 million to $250 million in damage. More than three weeks after the storm, campus was still without power and running water. All of McNeese’s athletics facilities suffered significant damage, totaling $50 million to $100 million. This included more than $10 million in damage to its 2-year-old Health and Human Performance Center, home to the men’s and women’s basketball teams and the volleyball team. The football stadium’s press box was ruined; four of its light poles were snapped by the powerful winds. Bleachers at multiple athletics facilities were mangled and blown all over campus. 

Nearly every one of McNeese’s roughly 400 student-athletes left before the storm hit. In the weeks since, they have gradually started to return to Lake Charles to pick up possessions and prepare for another semester of virtual learning, displaced from any semblance of normal. What they’ve seen in their return to campus has been worse than they imagined. 

Lauren Burt, a junior on McNeese’s volleyball team and a native of a Houston suburb, has seen hurricane damage before — but nothing like she witnessed when she returned to Lake Charles. 

“My sister played here from 2003 to 2006 when (Hurricane) Rita hit, and I remember that. Seeing this compared to that, it’s just so much worse,” Burt said. “Campus is destroyed, and all of our athletic facilities are unusable, which is something we often use to get through times like this, and now we can’t play. But the way that our athletic community has responded has been amazing. To see all the responses from the teams and everything that everybody’s doing is just amazing.”

That response is what Schroyer wants people across the country to hear about.

Yes, the struggle is real. Yes, the McNeese community will need some assistance to get back on its feet. The university started a relief fund, for those interested in helping. But McNeese is not stuck in despair. If anything, Schroyer said, this experience has shown the power of the community within Lake Charles and college athletics. 

“In the worst of times, you see the best of humanity,” he said, “and that’s really evident right now.” 

This includes several McNeese student-athletes, coaches and staff who have made the hourslong commute into Lake Charles to contribute to the cleanup effort. From delivering meals and water and unloading trucks of supplies to assisting with debris cleanup and repairs, McNeese has not forgotten the community members who consistently support them. 

“There would be no McNeese without Lake Charles. We’re built by the community. … They are our fans. They are our family. And everything they’ve given to us, it means so much to us athletes to now be able to repay it,” Burt said. “I’ve had people come up to me and say how thankful they are for us doing this, and for a lot of us athletes it wasn’t even a thought. This was just second nature for us to go out and help the people who have been there and supported us all this time.”

Burt, McNeese’s representative on the Southland Conference Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, reached out to the other conference reps immediately after the storm’s devastation was realized. Her message: We’re going to need help. Before she could give any details or specifics, her counterparts started spreading the message. 

In the weeks after, Louisiana Tech and LSU sent semi loads full of supplies. Northwestern State, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the University of Louisiana Monroe, Lamar University, Houston Baptist, Nicholls State, Stephen F. Austin and Houston are among the many others that have chipped in with various donations and drives. 

“They were so kind to be able to give all these things to us,” Burt said. “For them to do that as an opponent or a member of the Southland Conference and the community, it has been such a blessing.”

As for what the future holds, Burt said student-athletes are doing their best to take it one day at a time. It’s something they’ve unfortunately grown accustomed to, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic that has kept them from in-class learning and competition since the spring. 

Schroyer said he was “uncertain” if they’d be able to return to campus for in-person classes in the spring — this semester was already completely virtual due to the pandemic — but they would do everything possible to get ready for winter and spring sports seasons. The school announced Sunday that the men’s and women’s basketball teams relocated to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and LSU, respectively, to start preparing for their seasons, which are less than two months away.

“I think all of us sticking together and staying strong, that’s going to bring hope to everybody,” said Kyla Hamilton, a sophomore for the McNeese women’s basketball team. “With the coaches trying to get us to move somewhere and be able to continue our sport, I think that’s going to provide hope, showing everybody that we’re still moving forward. Also, being able to stick around here and help people who need it, I think that’s really going to provide hope, too.” 

Schroyer has tried to conjure hope with a message of opportunity. 

“Right now, I’m trying to keep our coaches and athletes positive and understand that this is a special time for them, this is something that they’re always going to be remembered by. How we respond to this as coaches, as administrators, as athletes, is going to define us. It’s going to define our legacy here,” he said. “When they talk about McNeese State University and the rebuild in 2020, how we all respond to this is going to be our legacy. I take that to heart. I know I’ve communicated that with our coaches and our athletes. I think they’re going to take that to heart, too. 

“Again, it’s a really, really tough time. But it’s also a great opportunity to learn how to deal with adversity and learn how to deal with other people. Being able to truly help your neighbor, we witness that every day. It’s been very humbling to see. We have a long way to go, but I’m excited about the road ahead and what eventually we’ll be able to accomplish here.”