Some 620,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders in Louisiana and Texas
By Ernest Scheyder and Jennifer Hiller
GALVESTON, Texas (Reuters) – Hurricane Laura was expected to cause catastrophic damage and “unsurvivable storm surge” to the Gulf Coast near the Texas and Louisiana border after strengthening on Wednesday to a Category 4 storm, the National Hurricane Center said.
Laura, located 200 miles (320 km) south-southeast of Port Arthur, Texas, on Wednesday afternoon, had maximum sustained winds of 140 miles per hour (220 km per hour) and was expected to pack winds of up to 145 mph (233 kph) before landfall on Wednesday night, the Miami-based forecaster said.
Some 620,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders in Louisiana and Texas.
The catastrophic storm surge could penetrate up to 30 miles (48 km) inland from the coastline between Sea Rim State Park, Texas, and Intracoastal City, Louisiana and could raise water levels as high as 20 feet (6 m) in parts of Cameron Parish, Louisiana, the NHC said.
“To think that there would be a wall of water over two stories 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 at a news conference. Most of Louisiana’s Cameron Parish would be underwater at some point, Schott added.
“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 being hastily erected outside the storm surge zone for evacuated residents, and emergency teams were being strategically positioned, state and federal emergency management agencies said.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Pete Gaynor posted pictures of portable shelters on Tuesday at Camp Beauregard, Louisiana, about 115 miles (185 km) north of the Gulf Coast.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott said his state’s National Guard was in place with high-water vehicles and rescue helicopters.
While Houston had earlier in the week feared Laura would deliver a direct hit to the fourth-largest U.S. city, the storm has shifted east and Houston, which was devastated by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, looked likely to escape the worst of it.
Louisiana Governor John Edwards said that the state’s entire National Guard had been activated for the first time since 2012.
More than 420,000 Texas residents and another 200,000 people in neighboring Louisiana were under mandatory evacuation orders.
Sarah and Brad Cooksey were filling up their RV at a gas station in Katy, Texas along their evacuation route from low-lying Port Arthur to a campground in Columbus.
“We’ll see what we come back to,” Brad Cooksey said. “Nothing we can do about it.”
Skies were dark, a light rain was falling and the surf was strong on Wednesday morning in the island city of Galveston, which was mostly boarded up.
Randall Gilmore, a 48-year-old maintenance worker, was riding his bike along the city’s sea wall before he planned to evacuate to nearby Texas City in the afternoon.
“This storm doesn’t look like it’ll be bad so far, but I feel it’s better to leave. You never know what to expect with these storms,” Gilmore said.
The storm was also expected to spawn tornadoes Wednesday night over Louisiana, far southeastern Texas and southwestern Mississippi and drop 5 to 10 inches of rain over the region, the NHC said. It added there would likely be widespread flooding from far eastern Texas across Louisiana and Arkansas from Wednesday to Thursday.
Crude oil production in the Gulf of Mexico has been paralyzed as companies batten down operations. Output cuts are nearing 90%, a level not seen since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
LANDFALL DURING PANDEMIC
Hidalgo County urged voluntary evacuation in the coastal region surrounding Houston, and shelters were set up in San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin. Thousands of evacuees would be sheltered at hotels in Austin, instead of schools, to encourage social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, the Austin American-Statesman reported.
Jared Brown, 39, was heading to a friend’s house in Austin from his home in Lake Charles, Louisiana on Wednesday. He had decided that would be safer from viral exposure than a hotel, where he normally would have taken shelter.
“Luckily he didn’t mind,” Brown said of his friend.
Lina Hidalgo, the top executive for Harris County, which encompasses Houston, signed a disaster declaration for the county on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder in Galveston, Texas; Writing by Gabriella Borter; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Marguerita Choy and Cynthia Osterman)