Hurricane Laura pounded the Gulf Coast for hours with ferocious wind, torrential rains and rising seawater as it roared ashore over southwestern Louisiana near the Texas border early Thursday, threatening the lives of people who didn’t heed evacuation orders.
The U.S. National Weather Service said the storm surge, possibly higher than a two-storey house, could be “unsurvivable,” acknowledging that as an unusually dire warning.
Laura crashed ashore around 2 a.m. ET as a Category 4 storm, the second strongest on the five-step scale, packing winds of 240 km/h in the small town of Cameron, La., near the Texas border, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
With more than 290,000 homes and businesses without power in the two states, near-constant lightning provided the only light for some.
More than 580,000 coastal residents were ordered to join the largest evacuation since the coronavirus pandemic began and many did, filling hotels and sleeping in cars since officials didn’t want to open mass shelters and worsen the spread of COVID-19.
But in Cameron Parish, where Laura came ashore, officials said at least 150 people refused pleas to leave and planned to weather the storm in everything from elevated homes to recreational vehicles. The result could be deadly since forecasters said the parish could be completely covered by ocean water.
“It’s a very sad situation,” said Ashley Buller, assistant director of emergency preparedness. “We did everything we could to encourage them to leave.”
The area where Laura made landfall is marshy and particularly vulnerable to the storm surge of ocean water.
“To think that there would be a wall of water over two storeys high coming on shore is very difficult for most to conceive, but that is what is going to happen,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Benjamin Schott said Wednesday at a news conference.
“The word ‘unsurvivable’ is not one that we like to use, and it’s one that I’ve never used before,” Schott said of the storm surge.
Temporary housing was hastily organized outside the surge zone for evacuated residents, and emergency teams were being strategically positioned, state and federal emergency management agencies said.
“We know anyone that stayed that close to the coast, we’ve got to pray for them, because looking at the storm surge, there would be little chance of survival,” Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser told ABC’s Good Morning America.
Buildings damaged in Lake Charles
The National Hurricane Center by 7 a.m. ET said Laura had become a Category 2 hurricane as it moved deeper inland over Louisiana, with maximum sustained winds of 160 km/h. It was centred about 30 kilometres north of Fort Polk, La., moving north at 24 km/h.
Forecasters expected Laura to cause widespread flash flooding in states far from the coast. After turning eastward and reaching the Atlantic Ocean, it could again become a tropical storm and threaten the Northeast.
There was also the threat from the system of tornadoes on Thursday over Louisiana, far southeastern Texas and southwestern Mississippi.
As a result of the hurricane’s path, the warning over southeast Texas had been reduced, the National Weather Service said.
Laura’s howling winds battered a tall building in Lake Charles, La., blowing out windows as glass and other debris flew to the ground. Hours after landfall, the wind and rain were still blowing hard.
“There are some people still in town and people are calling … but there ain’t no way to get to them,” Tony Guillory, president of the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, said early Thursday morning over the phone as he hunkered down in a Lake Charles government building that was shaking from the storm.
Guillory said he hopes stranded people can be rescued later Thursday but fears that blocked roads, downed power lines and flooding could get in the way. Officials said search missions and damage assessments would begin when conditions allow it.
Becky Clements, 56, didn’t take chances. She evacuated from Lake Charles after hearing that it could take a direct hit, memories still vivid of the destruction brought to her area almost 15 years ago by Hurricane Rita.
Here are the Key Messages for Thursday morning for Hurricane <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Laura?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Laura</a>. Catastrophic storm surge, extreme winds and flash flooding continues in portions of Louisiana. More: <a href=”https://t.co/tW4KeFW0gB”>https://t.co/tW4KeFW0gB</a> or your local weather forecast at <a href=”https://t.co/SiZo8ohZMN”>https://t.co/SiZo8ohZMN</a> <a href=”https://t.co/VSjWKiu45I”>pic.twitter.com/VSjWKiu45I</a>
She and her family found an Airbnb hundreds of kilometres inland.
“The devastation afterward in our town and that whole corner of the state was just awful,” Clements recalled Wednesday. “Whole communities were washed away, never to exist again.”
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, where it knocked out power and caused intense flooding.
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. The old record was six in 1886 and 1916, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.