Hurricane Laura lashes US Gulf Coast with high winds, flooding

The New York Times

Posted at Aug 27 2020 11:16 PM

In a satellite image provided by NOAA, .Hurricane Laura approaches the coasts of Texas and Louisiana in an image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. NOAA via The New York Times

Hurricane Laura pounded the Louisiana and Texas coasts in the United States as it made landfall near Cameron, Louisiana, as a Category 4 storm early Thursday, delivering a barrage of 150 mph winds and massive storm surge. 

The cyclone weakened as it moved inland, but remained destructive, with strong winds and heavy rain, and forecasters said it could spawn tornadoes.

At 8 a.m. Central time, the storm was centered between Leesville and Natchitoches, Louisiana, about 110 miles north of the Gulf Coast and 80 miles south of Shreveport, with hurricane-force winds extending out 60 miles in all directions, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm was moving northward at 15 mph, with maximum sustained winds of 100 mph.

Videos on social media showed the storm’s winds causing catastrophic damage to buildings and vehicles in their path. In Lake Charles, Louisiana, gusts blew out dozens of windows in a high-rise office building, the 22-story Capitol One tower, and ripped the top off a sky bridge, tipped an RV on its side, and downed power lines. The whistling winds mimicked the alarm-like sounds that could be heard inside buildings, and tore trees from the ground.

Landfall came after officials in both states issued the gravest of warnings about the storm, which is among the strongest ever to hit the United States, according to data compiled by Philip Klotzbach, a research scientist at Colorado State University who studies hurricanes. More than 1.5 million people in the coastal regions of Texas and Louisiana were under some form of evacuation orders.

Utility companies reported that about 404,000 customers in Louisiana and another 104,000 in Texas were without power Thursday morning, according to PowerOutage.us.

The full extent of damage will not be known until the winds die down, the storm surge recedes and residents and officials can survey the wreckage.

Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana said Thursday morning that his state had been hit with “extensive” damage to structures, particularly in the Lake Charles area. Search and rescue teams were on their way to Lake Charles, he said.

“We believe we got a break on the storm surge,” at least so far, he said on CNN, noting that it had not appeared to reach the extreme heights that forecasters said were possible. But it may still be coming in, he said, adding, “This was an extremely powerful storm.”

Edwards said the state was taking COVID-19 precautions at shelters and in its rescue efforts; otherwise Louisiana could “pay the price” in a couple of weeks with a surge in cases.

Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas said his state had no recorded storm fatalities yet. “The storm surge and the powerful winds could have led to catastrophic deaths,” Abbott said on CNN. “We no doubt saved lives, because of those evacuations.”

The governor said search and rescue teams were in the Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange County areas, near the Louisiana state line, looking for individuals in need. “People in northeast Texas still need to remain very vigilant right now,” he said.

Lake Charles

The city of Lake Charles was pummeled early Thursday, lashed by punishing rains and winds as Hurricane Laura swept overhead.

At 3 a.m. local time, the National Hurricane Center said that the city’s airport was reporting gusts of 132 mph. For over an hour, there were reports of wind gusts over 120 mph, and social media quickly filled with images of destruction.

The city lies about 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, but that is no protection from the severe flash flooding that forecasters expected to accompany the storm as it pushes inland over Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas over the next two days.

“Anybody watching in these areas along the Louisiana coast, I mean, it is too dangerous to be outside,” the director of the National Hurricane Center, Ken Graham, said in a video posted to Twitter late Wednesday. “I hope you’re not there. I hope you evacuated.”

The Lake Charles area is particularly vulnerable to flooding. Much of the land between the city and the coast is treeless marshland that is bisected by 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.

Once a freshwater lake, its namesake is now, because of saltwater influx from the Gulf, essentially a brackish inlet of the ocean. Petrochemical refineries, the main driver of the region’s economy, are within sight of downtown.

The city of 80,000 sits along Interstate 10, the primary route between south Louisiana and southeastern Texas. But that is not much help when big storms hit. During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Interstate 10 disappeared under a choppy ocean and was closed for days.

Hours before the storm made landfall, the state’s transportation department said that part Interstate 10 stretching more than 100 miles from the Texas border, including a portion that runs through Lake Charles, had been closed.

Storm sweeps through Louisiana

The storm surge in southern Louisiana and the Lake Charles area may last for another day, while hurricane-force winds reach north to the border of Louisiana and Arkansas, Graham said Thursday.

Speaking on CNN a few hours after Hurricane Laura made landfall, Graham said there was storm surge of up to 11 feet in some areas, and that some it may be “held in place” for hours if not longer.

“It may take another day before some of that water gets out of there,” he said. The flooding would cause “all sorts of damage” along the coastline, he said, warning that the continuing rainfall could cause flash floods.

With reports of homes having their roofs blown off, offices with their windows shattered and extensive damage to infrastructure, including communications towers, he said that residents were probably waking up to find widespread wreckage.

“You can’t put 150-mile-an-hour winds anywhere without seeing structural damage,” he said.

Graham said that Hurricane Laura was projected to remain strong even as it moved far inland. “We expect Hurricane Laura still to be a hurricane right up to when you get to Shreveport, at the Arkansas border,” he said.

The hurricane center had warned that the storm surge might exceed 15 feet in some places and reach up to 40 miles inland. It was not clear on Thursday whether any populated areas had been hit that hard.

Clyde Cain, a leader of the Cajun Navy, the volunteer armada that deploys in storm zones for water rescues and other work, said early Thursday that he and his fellow boaters were starting to get requests to check on people whose homes or apartments were damaged by the wind. But, he said, they had gotten no calls yet for any boat rescues.

“They were saying ‘unsurvivable surge,’” said Cain, who was gathered with other boat operators in Crowley, Louisiana, a small Cajun city about an hour east of Lake Charles. “We’re not really sure yet, but we haven’t really heard reports that it was a big as Katrina, or anything like that.”

Hurricane’s path

People who did not flee a vast stretch of the Gulf Coast hunkered down as the storm tore through the dark of night. Officials have said the police and emergency workers would not be able to reach anyone until the storm had passed.

“Know that it’s just you and God,” Mayor Thurman Bartie of Port Arthur, Texas, warned residents who stayed behind.

In Vermilion 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.

As the first bands of the expansive hurricane approached Lake Charles, 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,” O’Donnell, 33, said. “It doesn’t feel right leaving my city like this.”

A frequent city volunteer, 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 areas outside the city.

Among those 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 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,” O’Donnell said. “And there’s a lot of people left back there.”

Still, his efforts were clear in one way: 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.”