CALCASIEU PARISH, LA (KPLC) - Hurricane Rita devastated Southwest Louisiana but in some ways, it brought the community and its leadership closer together.
Rita made landfall as a Category 3 storm on September 24, 2005, leaving homes gutted, places of worship demolished and parts of Southwest Louisiana in ruin.
"After seeing what happened in New Orleans, it was an opportunity for us to show we can do it better and we can do it different and I think we did," Calcasieu Parish Sheriff Tony Mancuso said.
Mancuso was the newly elected sheriff at the time. He had just taken over a year prior to the storm. He remembers Rita as the first real test of his leadership.
"I got a knot in my stomach and in my throat about as bad as you can get. I mean, it was bad. It looked like..I just don't know that I was prepared for what I saw. It was just destruction," he said.
He like so many other parish leaders stayed behind — riding out the storm. The sheriff's office served as a central hub for area law enforcement — the jail, their shelter. Mancuso remembers first-hand the intensity as Rita pounded Calcasieu Parish.
"Three or four o' clock in the morning, we look outside and the fences at the jail are leaned over. They look like they're about to rip out the ground," he said. "There's debris flying across the parking lot. Windows are shattering in cars that are parked out here. I mean, it was really, really bad."
Mancuso said it's an experience he'll never forget and credits part of the success to residents' willingness to evacuate.
"Your public officials were successful because we didn't have to deal with injured people, dead people and rescuing people," Mancuso said.
Another measure of success came in the form of proactive planning.
Robert Daughdril worked at West Calcasieu Cameron Hospital at the time but was part of the large group of parish leaders meeting daily — even hourly —ahead of the storm.
"We had been going and going and going for quite a long time. Right before the storm hit, I had already been up for 48 hours," Daughdril said. "We were having twice a day, if not more, meetings to discuss what was going on, what our actions were going to be during the next operational period and things like that."
The plan continued after the storm through clean-up and recovery efforts, with each agency pitching in.
"We delegated and shared responsibilities and I think we did that pretty equally as a parish. Everybody knew their role. Everybody knew their part," Mancuso added.
At the mercy of Mother Nature came an opportunity.
"We cannot do it alone and that's why having these briefings we're all sitting together; we're all having the administration of all the different departments saying we're going to do this and it worked," Daughdril said.
"It was the best, worst time of my life. It taught me a lot about leadership. It taught me a lot about the men and women that work here," Mancuso said. "I have great respect for them and admiration for them and confidence in them. We have some good leaders here in our community."
The storm taught parish leaders the value of unity in the midst of devastation.