Thousands of people were ordered to evacuate the Texas and Louisiana coasts Tuesday as Laura strengthened into a hurricane that forecasters said could slam into land as a major storm with ferocious winds and deadly flooding.
More than 385,000 residents were told to flee the Texas cities of Beaumont, Galveston and Port Arthur, and still more were ordered to evacuate low-lying southwestern Louisiana, where forecasters said more than 3.96 metres of storm surge topped by waves could submerge entire towns.
Forecasters said ocean water could push onto land along a more than 725-kilometre-long stretch of coast from Texas to Mississippi, and hurricane warnings will be issued later as the storm nears.
The National Hurricane Center projected that Laura will become a Category 3 hurricane before landfall, with winds of around 185 kilometres per hour, capable of devastating damage.
“The main point is that we’re going to have a significant hurricane make landfall late Wednesday or early Thursday,” National Hurricane Center Deputy Director Ed Rappaport said Tuesday.
“The waters are warm enough everywhere there to support a major hurricane, Category 3 or even higher. The waters are very warm where the storm is now and will be for the entire path up until the Gulf Coast,” Rappaport said.
As of Tuesday morning, Laura was 940 kilometres southeast of Lake Charles, La., travelling northwest at 26 km/h. Its peak winds were 120 km/h.
There was little to keep Laura from turbocharging. Nearly all forecasts showed rapid strengthening at some point in the next couple of days.
‘We’re going to roll with the punches’
Laura passed Cuba after killing nearly two dozen people on the island of Hispaniola, including 20 in Haiti and three in the Dominican Republic, where it knocked out power and caused intense flooding. The deaths reportedly included a 10-year-old girl whose home was hit by a tree and a mother and young son crushed by a collapsing wall.
Forecasters turned their attention the Gulf Coast, where up to 3.4 metres of sea water — storm surge — could inundate the coastline from High Island in Texas to Morgan City, La., the hurricane centre said.
Here are the Tuesday morning Key Messages for Tropical Storm <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Laura?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Laura</a>. Today is the day to prepare if you are in a watch area because the weather will be going downhill by Wednesday afternoon. More on Laura at <a href=”https://t.co/tW4KeFW0gB”>https://t.co/tW4KeFW0gB</a> or your local forecast <a href=”https://t.co/SiZo8ohZMN”>https://t.co/SiZo8ohZMN</a> <a href=”https://t.co/3KShToYqKJ”>pic.twitter.com/3KShToYqKJ</a>
“We’re talking about something that’s on the order of 10 feet and that’s going to penetrate well inland,” Rappaport said.
On top of that, up to 38 centimetres of rain could fall in some spots in Louisiana, said Donald Jones, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Lake Charles.
“Whatever happens, happens. We’re going to roll with the punches,” said Capt. Brad Boudreaux, who operates a fishing guide service in Hackberry, La., near the Texas line.
Coastal residents caught a break as the storm Marco weakened into a remnant just off Louisiana’s shore on Tuesday. Satellite images showed a disorganized cluster of clouds, what meteorologists call “a naked swirl,” Jones said.
The crew of a hurricane hunter plane confirmed that Laura became a hurricane with top winds of 120 km/h shortly after passing between the western tip of Cuba and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
The hurricane centre warned people not to focus on the details of the official forecast, however, since “storm surge, wind, and rainfall hazards will extend well away from Laura’s centre along the Gulf Coast.”
Coronavirus adds new challenge for shelters
Workers were being evacuated from production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico in anticipation of Laura’s arrival, reducing offshore oil and gas production to less than one-fifth the normal activity. The U.S. Interior Department said Monday that 281 platforms had been evacuated by around midday. That’s nearly half of those normally with workers on site.
The department estimated that 82 per cent of oil production and 57 per cent of natural gas production in the Gulf has been shut down. The oil production cut was at a level comparable to 2005’s devastating Hurricane Katrina.
In Galveston and Port Arthur, Texas, mandatory evacuation orders went into effect at 6 a.m. Tuesday. People planning on entering official shelters were told to bring just one bag of personal belongings each, and “have a mask” to reduce the spread of coronavirus.
“If you decide to stay, you’re staying on your own,” Port Arthur Mayor Thurman Bartie said.
Officials in Houston asked residents to prepare supplies in case they lose power for a few days or need to evacuate homes along the coast. Some in the area are still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey three years ago.
State emergencies were declared in Louisiana and Mississippi, and shelters opened with cots set farther apart, among other measures designed to curb infections.
Laura’s unwelcome arrival comes just days before the Aug. 29 anniversary of Katrina, which breached the levees in New Orleans, flattened much of the Mississippi coast and killed as many as 1,800 people in 2005.
In Waveland, Miss., a coastal town devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Jeremy Burke said “our biggest threat down here is the storm surge.” When Katrina struck, “the wind did do damage, but the thing that put the nail in the coffin was the storm surge,” said Burke, who owns Bay Books in nearby Bay St. Louis.
Many residents in Waveland are staying in place as Laura bears down on the coast, but they also have their cars and trucks gassed up in case the forecast grows more ominous, Burke said.
“People are prepared to possibly go at the drop of a hat,” he said. “We never take a storm for granted.”