Laura now a Category 1 hurricane, first death reported in Louisiana

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.

Laura arrived as one of the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the U.S., a Category 4 storm with winds up to 240 kilometres per hour. Louisiana took the brunt of the damage when the system barrelled over Lake Charles, an industrial and casino city of 80,00 people, and nearby low-lying fishing communities. Powerful gusts blew out windows in tall buildings and tossed around glass and debris.

Police spotted a floating casino that came unmoored and hit a bridge. Drone video showed water surrounding homes with much of their roofs peeled away.

“It looks like 1,000 tornadoes went through here. It’s just destruction everywhere,” said Brett Geymann, who rode out the storm with three family members in Moss Bluff, near Lake Charles. He described Laura passing over his house with the roar of a jet engine around 2 a.m.

“There are houses that are totally gone,” he said. “They were there yesterday, but now gone.”

Dustin Amos walks near debris at a gas station on Thursday in Lake Charles, La., after Hurricane Laura moved through the southernmost portion of the state. (Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press)

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards reported the first fatality from the hurricane, a 14-year-old girl who died when a tree fell on her home. A spokesperson with the governor’s office said the girl lived in Leesville, La.

With more than 470,000 homes and businesses without power in the two states, near-constant lightning provided the only light for some overnight.

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.”

Cautious optimism storm surge less than feared

The area where Laura made landfall is marshy and particularly vulnerable to the storm surge of ocean water.

“The word ‘unsurvivable’ is not one that we like to use, and it’s one that I’ve never used before,” National Weather Service meteorologist Benjamin Schott said of the storm surge.

Flooding caused by Hurricane Laura is shown in Sabine Pass, Tex. The storm made landfall in western Louisiana, but its effects could be felt in parts of southeast Texas. (Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

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.

Both Edwards and Abbott said the initial indications were that the storm surge was not as bad as initially feared. Edwards told CNN and MSNBC that it was perhaps half of a pre-landfall warning of 6 metres, which would put it in line with several past hurricanes.

FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor also told ABC’s Good Morning America that the surge turned out to be less than what was forecasted, but he expects significant wind damage to buildings once they do proper surveys of the disaster area.

But storm surge could spread up to 60 kilometres, officials said, and a full damage assessment could take days. Wind and rain blew too hard for authorities to check for survivors in some hard-hit places.

Downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane by midmorning, as of 11 a.m. ET Laura was generating maximum sustained winds of 120 km/h and was located 85 kilometres from Shreveport, the third most populous city in Louisiana. It was moving north at 26 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, Arkansas and southwestern Mississippi.

A street in Lake Charles, La., is seen strewn with debris and downed power lines after Hurricane Laura passed through the area. The storm is believed to have caused extensive damage, but officials have not yet been able to get to all parts of the city. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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.

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.”

Damage to the Capital One building from the effects of Hurricane Laura is seen in Lake Charles, La. (Stephen Jones/The Associated Press)

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.

Speakers at the Republican convention on Wednesday night, including Vice-President Mike Pence, extended their prayers to those in the path of the storm, expressing their hopes for minimal damage.

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