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Lake Charles supported Wade LeBlanc and Jace Peterson on their way up.

Now they’re giving back

By Jerry Crasnick

The day of Aug. 26 began badly for Orioles pitcher Wade LeBlanc, when he learned that a stress reaction in his left elbow was ending his season after six starts and 22 1/3 innings. But any temptation to dwell on his misfortune disappeared with the force of a 150 mph wind.

As LeBlanc paced a Baltimore hotel room that same night, he was riveted to news coverage of devastation in his hometown. Once Hurricane Laura hit landfall off the Gulf of Mexico, it trained much of its rage on southwest Louisiana and his birthplace of Lake Charles. As the images swirled past -- of torrential rain and winds strong enough to tear lampposts from the streets -- LeBlanc kept score with his wife, Natalie, who was staying at a Dallas hotel with their two young sons because of a mandatory evacuation order.

“Neither one of us really slept,’’ LeBlanc said. “We tried to monitor things at home on the security cameras and our phones. But as soon as the power went off back home, you’re just left watching the Weather Channel. We did a lot of texting back and forth and watching the nightmare unfold on TV. That’s all we could do.’’

The LeBlancs managed to escape with some missing roof shingles, damaged siding and a cracked brick column on their fence. Soon after -- once the Category 4 storm had pummeled Lake Charles, moved north and eased to a tropical depression -- they learned that thousands of others weren’t so fortunate.

The storm uprooted trees and knocked down power lines, destroyed homes and businesses and rendered much of the area uninhabitable and unrecognizable. Like so many communities in the U.S., Lake Charles was already dealing with the economic and human toll of the coronavirus. Now the area confronts a harsh and miserable alternate reality.

“The pictures you see on-line don’t do it justice,’’ said LeBlanc, who returned to Lake Charles for the first time Wednesday. “It’s like bombs went off there.’’

The suffering hits home for a favorite son. Twelve years after his MLB debut, LeBlanc returns to Lake Charles each offseason and holds the place as close as ever to his heart. The people of Calcasieu Parish supported him at the University of Alabama and through eight big-league stops, and he is determined to return the favor through the mantra that charity begins at home.

LeBlanc and Milwaukee Brewers infielder Jace Peterson, a fellow Lake Charles native, have started a GoFundMe campaign with their wives with a goal of raising $100,000 for their hometown.  The initiative, “Operation Rebuild Lake Charles,’’ is a lifeline to friends, neighbors and just plain folks who’ve been thrust into a world of heartache, chaos and uncertainty.

“I’m looking forward to just getting back, door-to-door or setting up at a place and looking for families where there’s obvious devastation,’’ Peterson said. “Whether it’s writing checks to families or local businesses or churches, anything is a blessing. Whether it’s $100,000 or a million dollars, every penny is going to get used.’’

Lake Charles, flanked by Houston to the west and New Orleans to the east, relies on the oil and gas industry for much of its commerce and has a handful of casinos. For a city of 78,000, it boasts an impressive roster of local boys and girls-made good. NBA star Joe Dumars, Hall of Fame baseball player Ted Lyons, NFL running back Matt Forte and former big-league pitchers Chad Ogea and Casey Daigle, who’s married to Olympic softball star Jennie Finch, are all products of Lake Charles.

Dr. Michael DeBakey, a pioneer in the development of the artificial heart, was a Lake Charles native. And from the arts and entertainment world, there’s Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, musician Van Dyke Parks and singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, who wrote an eponymous ode to Lake Charles on her album, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.’’

LeBlanc, 36, and Peterson, 30, were weaned on the simple pleasures of life in the small-town south. For LeBlanc, that meant riding his bike cross town to overnight stays with friends, playing baseball and pickup hoops and spending countless hours hunting and fishing with his father. For a young Jace Peterson, heaven was defined by blissful days in duck blinds and casting lines in the Calcasieu River and Sabine Lake in search of red fish, flounder and bass. He signed with the Padres as a first-round pick in 2011 after playing college ball in Lake Charles at McNeese State, but he’s never given a thought to living elsewhere.

“Whether you go there every year or it’s the very first time, it’s a place where people look you in the eye and say, ‘Hello, how are you doing? Welcome to Lake Charles. Are you hungry?’’’ Peterson said. “I know every place has people like that, but these people are going to give you the shirt off their back. My wife is from Colorado, and she came here and fell in love with it and never wants to leave.’’

While LeBlanc was pacing his hotel room in Baltimore, Peterson monitored Hurricane Laura’s path from Milwaukee and prayed that the anticipated 20-foot storm surge would fail to materialize. When he connected via Facetime with a friend who was staying in the nearby town of Moss Bluff, he was taken aback by the ferocity of the storm. “It sounded like a train was in his house,’’ Peterson said. “The noise and pure power of those storms is indescribable.’’

Peterson is a tropical storm veteran. He was 15 years old when Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans in August of 2005 and Hurricane Rita mercilessly piled on in September. “We had a tree house in our backyard since I was a little kid, and I remember driving into the yard and it was completely gone,’’ he said. “You’re a kid and all these trees are down and you don’t know why. It’s pretty devastating, for sure.’’

Now that the scope of Wade LeBlanc’s “nightmare’’ is coming into focus, the challenges are daunting. The storm inflicted an estimated $12 billion in damage to the state of Louisiana, and it could be weeks until electricity and water are fully restored in Lake Charles. LeBlanc, his wife and boys are driving 300 miles round-trip from a new hotel in Houston to help with the cleanup, and they’re planning to relocate to Lafayette, La., soon to ease the commute.

Folks in Lake Charles are attacking the problem one chain saw at a time. Peterson’s brothers, Eric and Kyle, are busy lifting trees off neighbors’ houses with a tractor. A few restaurants are up and running, but they’re feeding first responders and workers who are staying in Lake Charles and living in tents.

Amid the wreckage, the locals are buoyed by a shared strength that transcends generations.

“If you know the people there, this is not going to keep them down,’’ LeBlanc said. “That’s Lake Charles and Louisiana in general, and that’s this country in general.

“This is a resilient country. You see it so often in so many places. Las Vegas. Boston. Parkland. Things happen that are out of our control, and people just bounce back. We’re fortunate enough to know these people on a personal level in Lake Charles. We know who they are and what makes them tick. We know what keeps them going and what drives them. This is not something that’s going to keep this community down.’’

Not if two favorite sons have a say in the matter. Wade LeBlanc and Jace Peterson watched the devastation from afar. They plan to be up close and personal for the rebuild.

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