Hurricane Laura sweeps ashore as one of most powerful storms to ever hit the U.S.
Hurricane Laura pounded the Louisiana and Texas coasts as it made landfall near Cameron, La., as a Category 4 storm early Thursday, delivering a barrage of 150-mile-per-hour winds and a wall of water that was predicted to reach as high as 20 feet.
Landfall came after officials in both states issued the gravest of warnings, sounding the alarm about a storm that, in many ways, could be one of the worst to hit the region in decades.
The National Hurricane Center called the expected storm surge “unsurvivable,” and said that it could push as far as 40 miles inland. Officials also said that low-lying areas facing the brunt of the storm, like Cameron Parish in Louisiana, would essentially be annexed by the Gulf of Mexico until floods receded.
“I’m asking people right now to pay attention to this storm, to get out of harm’s way,” Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana told residents during a briefing ahead of the storm’s arrival. “Understand, our state has not seen a storm surge like this in many, many decades. We haven’t seen wind speeds like we’re going to experience in a very, very long time.”
In Calcasieu Parish, La., winds have reached 93 miles per hour with gusts of 126 miles per hour, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.
The National Weather Service said heavy rain had hit Lake Charles, Jennings, Lafayette and New Iberia. People in Lake Charles posted Twitter videos of sheets of rain blowing across the streets and trees buckling over in the background.
Laura was among the strongest storms to ever hit the United States, according to data compiled by Philip Klotzbach, a research scientist at Colorado State University who studies hurricanes.
People who did not flee a vast stretch of the Gulf Coast spanning from west of Galveston, Texas, to near Lafayette, La., hunkered down as the storm tears through the dark of night. Officials have said those people would be on their own, as the police and emergency workers would not be able to reach them until the storm had passed.
“Know that it’s just you and God,” Mayor Thurman Bartie of Port Arthur, Texas, warned residents who were staying behind.
In Vermillion Parish, southwest of Lafayette on the Louisiana coast, the sheriff’s office had a grim request for residents who did not leave: “If you choose to stay and we can’t get to you, write your name, address, social security number and next of kin and put it a zip-lock bag in your pocket. Praying that it does not come to this!”
The storm was preceded by tough decisions about fleeing and an urgent push to get people out of harm’s way.
More than 500,000 residents in Louisiana and Texas were urged to flee their homes in recent days as Hurricane Laura roared toward the Gulf Coast. Laura intensified into a Category 4 hurricane on Wednesday afternoon as it churned through the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
As the first bands of the expansive hurricane approached Lake Charles, his hometown, John O’Donnell hit a nearly empty Interstate 10, heading east for Lafayette or Baton Rouge.
He felt uneasy.
“This just doesn’t feel right,” Mr. O’Donnell, 33, said. “It doesn’t feel right leaving my city like this.”
A frequent city volunteer, Mr. O’Donnell said he had spent the last two or three days urging his fellow Lake Charles residents to evacuate. Privately, he sent his dog off with his ex-wife. Publicly, he posted on social media and drove 25 or 30 people to sites where buses carted them to safer havens outside the city.
Among those Mr. O’Donnell found himself convincing were people too young to remember the impact of Hurricane Rita in 2005, as well as longtime residents who argued that if their homes didn’t flood during that storm, they could make it through this one.
As Mr. O’Donnell sped toward Lafayette on Wednesday afternoon under steely skies, he wondered if he had done enough.
“Those are the ones that haunt me because we didn’t get them all,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “And there’s a lot of people left back there.”
Still, his efforts were clear in one way: Mr. O’Donnell was alone on the drive, having urged his loved ones to flee before the storm.
“It’s me and a bottle of bourbon and a cowboy hat in the passenger seat,” he said. “The bourbon isn’t open, but it will be as soon as I stop.”
Hurricane Laura’s first target: a coastal Louisiana parish.
Hurricane Laura made landfall early Thursday near Cameron, La., a coastal town in a southern Louisiana parish that has a population of about 7,000.
The eyewall of the storm was moving over Cameron Parish around midnight, lashing the Gulf of Mexico’s coastline with heavy rain and high winds. The National Hurricane Center said that a monitoring site in the town of Cameron was reporting sustained winds of 101 miles per hour, with gusts of up to 116 miles per hour.
Cameron Parish officials had issued a voluntary evacuation order last weekend, then upgraded it to mandatory on Monday amid warnings of downed trees, power outages and other damages in the area, according to the local sheriff’s office.
Cheniere Energy, which operates a liquefied natural gas plant in Cameron Parish, said on Tuesday that it had suspended operations and evacuated its personnel, Reuters reported.
“They’re thinking Cameron Parish is going to look like an extension of the Gulf of Mexico for a couple of days,” Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana was quoted by The Associated Press as saying on Wednesday, hours before the storm’s arrival.
At least 150 people in the parish refused to leave, The Associated Press reported on Wednesday, citing local officials. “It’s a very sad situation,” said Ashley Buller, the parish’s assistant director of emergency preparedness. “We did everything we could to encourage them to leave.”
Emergency responders were not expected to arrive there until Friday or Saturday because of storm surges.
The roughly 1,300-square-mile parish is among Louisiana’s largest and sits about 40 miles south of Lake Charles. A more than 100-mile stretch of Interstate 10 that runs east from the Texas border, passing through Lake Charles, was closed to traffic on Wednesday.
Cameron Parish is named after Simon Cameron, President Abraham Lincoln’s first secretary of war.
The geography of the Lake Charles area offers little protection from the storm.
The city of Lake Charles, right in the path of Hurricane Laura, sits some 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. But this does not mean it is safe from an “unsurvivable surge” expected to march in front of the storm.
Between the city and the coast lies mostly treeless marshland, which, most dangerously, is cut through with shipping channels that lead directly in from the Gulf. With a storm surge predicted to be as high as 20 feet, these channels “provide conduits like a hose going in,” said Paul Kemp, a professor of coastal sciences at Louisiana State University.
A city of nearly 80,000, Lake Charles is fueled primarily by the petrochemical industry. Its namesake was once a freshwater lake but is now, because of saltwater influx from the Gulf, essentially a brackish inlet of the ocean.
Refineries sit within sight of downtown, though the city is also known in the region for its casinos, including a 26-story hotel-casino that sits next to a golf course. It is the industry and recreational hub of Southwestern Louisiana and a gateway to Texas.
The place expected to take the first direct hit from Hurricane Laura, coastal Cameron Parish, has been repeatedly devastated by hurricanes, Rita and Ike most recently. A wide swath of marsh and farmland, it has a fraction of the population it once had.
The vulnerability has gotten worse over time. For decades, saltwater has steadily crept inland all along the coast, through these shipping channels and coastal erosion, turning freshwater lakes brackish and killing trees that once offered protection from big storms.
The kind of storm surge that Laura is forecast to bring, which builds up easily over the Gulf’s relatively shallow continental shelf, could reach as far as 40 miles inland, forecasters said.
“You’ve got all these things coming together, and then adding insult to injury, this storm is big,” said Jamie Rhome, who oversees the storm surge forecast unit at the National Hurricane Center. “Big storms push harder, exert more force than little storms of the same intensity.”
He said that the surge could very well reach Interstate 10, the main artery along the Gulf, which was flooded most recently in Tropical Storm Imelda last year. During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the interstate disappeared under a choppy ocean, shutting off the primary route between south Louisiana and southeastern Texas for days.
Late on Friday night, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development said that a stretch of Interstate 10 from the Texas border to the Lafayette area — a distance of more than 100 miles — had been closed to traffic ahead of the hurricane’s arrival.
Reporting was contributed by Alan Blinder, Chelsea Brasted, Mike Ives, Campbell Robertson, Rick Rojas, Marc Santora, John Schwartz and Will Wright