Laura leaves massive mess in Louisiana, brings tornadoes to southeast U.S.

The remnants of Hurricane Laura unleashed heavy rain and twisters hundreds of kilometres inland from a path of death and mangled buildings along the Gulf Coast, and forecasters warn of new dangers as the tropical weather blows toward the Eastern Seaboard this weekend.

Tornadoes were reported in Arkansas and Mississippi as the storm, now a tropical depression, drifted north. Forecasters warned that the system could strengthen into a tropical storm again upon returning to the Atlantic Ocean this weekend.

Laura has been blamed for at least six deaths, and in the hardest-hit parts of Louisiana, the outlook was grim for evacuated residents eager to come home.

More than 750,000 homes and businesses were without power in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas in the storm’s wake, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks utility reports.

Mayor Nic Hunter of Lake Charles, La., cautioned that there was no timetable for restoring electricity and that water-treatment plants “took a beating,” resulting in barely a trickle of water coming out of most faucets in the city of 80,000 people.

“If you come back to Lake Charles to stay, make sure you understand the above reality and are prepared to live in it for many days, probably weeks,” Hunter wrote on Facebook.

“‘Look and Leave’ truly is the best option for many,” he added.

An Auto Zone auto parts store is seen damaged with its roof blown off in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura in Lake Charles, La. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

The Louisiana Department of Health estimated that more than 220,000 people were without water statewide. Restoration of basic services could take weeks or months, and full rebuilding could take years.

Entire neighbourhoods were submerged and ruined along and near the coast. Twisted sheets of metal and debris, and downed trees and power lines littered nearly every street. Caravans of utility trucks were met Friday by thunderstorms in the sizzling heat, complicating recovery efforts.

“It is clear that we did not sustain and suffer the absolute, catastrophic damage that we thought was likely,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said. “But we have sustained a tremendous amount of damage.”

‘We’re blessed’

Finishing search and rescue efforts was a top priority, Edwards said, followed by efforts to find hotel or motel rooms for those unable to stay in their homes. Officials in Texas and Louisiana both sought to avoid traditional mass shelters to avoid spreading COVID-19.

The hurricane’s top wind speed of 241 km/h put it among the strongest systems on record in the U.S. Not until 11 hours after landfall did Laura finally lose hurricane status as it plowed north and thrashed Arkansas, sustaining winds of 65 km/h while flooding roads and spawning tornadoes.

Pastor Steve Hinkle surveyed the damage after a tornado gutted his Refuge Church in Lake City, Ark.: An outdoor pavilion was reduced to rubble. A brick shed was shredded. The fellowship and family life centre was a tangle of bent metal beams. Yellow insulation littered the churchyard.

“It skipped right over the house and hit every other building that the church has other than us,” said Hinkle, who huddled with his family in the parsonage bathroom after they saw transformers blow out in the distance. “We’re blessed.”

Meanwhile, Laura’s remnants delivered heavy rain and strong winds to Memphis, Tenn., and knocked out electricity. Flash-flood watches were in effect throughout western Tennessee.

Back in Lake Charles, many buildings had partially collapsed on Broad Street. Windows were blown out, awnings ripped away and trees split. A floating casino came unmoored and hit a bridge, and small planes were thrown atop each other at the airport. A television station’s tower toppled.

A Confederate statue in front of a courthouse that local officials had voted to keep in place just days earlier was knocked down by Laura.

Four people were killed by falling trees in Louisiana, including a 14-year-old girl and a 68-year-old man. A 24-year-old man died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator inside his residence. Another man drowned in a boat that sank during the storm, authorities said.

No deaths had been confirmed in Texas, which Republican Gov. Greg Abbott called “a miracle.”

Lake Charles resident Shirley Andrus on Friday looks into her vehicle, crushed by a fallen tree as Hurricane Laura passed through the area the previous day. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Bucky Millet, 78, of Lake Arthur, La., considered evacuating but decided because of the coronavirus to ride out the storm with family. A small tornado blew the cover off the bed of his pickup. That made him think the roof of his house was next.

“You’d hear a crack and a boom and everything shaking,” he said.

WATCH l Ferocious winds in the first hours after landfall:

Laura was the seventh named storm to strike the U.S. this year, setting a new record for U.S. landfalls by the end of August. Laura hit the U.S. after killing nearly two dozen people on the island of Hispaniola, including 20 in Haiti and three in the Dominican Republic.

President Donald Trump planned to visit the Gulf Coast this weekend to tour the damage.

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