Thousands of people were ordered to evacuate the Texas and Louisiana coasts on Tuesday as Tropical Storm Laura strengthened into a hurricane that forecasters said could slam into land as a major storm with ferocious winds and deadly flooding.
More than 385,000 residents were told to flee the Texas cities of Beaumont, Galveston and Port Arthur, and still more were ordered to evacuate low-lying southwestern Louisiana, where forecasters said more than 3.35m (11 feet) of storm surge topped by waves could submerge entire towns.
The National Hurricane Center projected that Laura will become a Category 3 hurricane before landfall, with winds of around 185km/h (115 mph), capable of devastating damage.
“The main point is that we’re going to have a significant hurricane make landfall late Wednesday or early Thursday,” National Hurricane Center Deputy Director Ed Rappaport said Tuesday.
Forecasters said ocean water could push onto land along a more than 724 kilometre-long (450-mile) stretch of coast from Texas to Mississippi. Hurricane warnings were issued from San Luis Pass, Texas to Intracoastal City, Louisiana; and storm surge warnings from the Port Arthur, Texas, flood protection system to the mouth of the Mississippi River.
While crosswinds ripped apart Tropical Storm Marco, which still doused the region with heavy rain on Monday, there was little to keep Laura from turbo-charging. Nearly all the computer simulations that forecasters rely on show rapid strengthening at some point in the next couple of days.
“The waters are warm enough everywhere there to support a major hurricane, Category 3 or even higher,” Rappaport said. “The waters are very warm where the storm is now and will be for the entire path up until the Gulf Coast.”
Laura passed Cuba 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. The deaths reportedly included a 10-year-old girl whose home was hit by a tree and a mother and young son crushed by a collapsing wall.
Forecasters turned their attention to the Gulf Coast, where up to 11 feet (3.4 metres) of seawater – a storm surge – could inundate the coastline from High Island, Texas to Morgan City, Louisiana, the hurricane centre said.
“We’re talking about something that’s on the order of 10 feet [three metres] and that’s going to penetrate well inland,” Rappaport said.
On top of that, up to 38cm (15 inches) of rain could fall in some spots in Louisiana, said Donald Jones, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Lake Charles, Louisiana – in the bull’s-eye of Laura’s projected path.
“Whatever happens, happens. We’re going to roll with the punches,” said Captain Brad Boudreaux, who operates a fishing guide service in Hackberry, Louisiana, near the Texas border.
The silver lining for US coastal residents is that Marco weakened into a remnant just off Louisiana’s shore on Tuesday. Satellite images showed a disorganised cluster of clouds, what meteorologists call “a naked swirl”, Jones said.
The crew of a hurricane hunter plane confirmed that Laura became a hurricane with top winds of 120km/h (75mph) shortly after passing between the western tip of Cuba and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It was 941km (585 miles) southeast of Lake Charles, Louisiana, heading west-northwest at 26km/h (16mph).
The hurricane centre warned people not to focus on the details of the official forecast, however, since “storm surge, wind, and rainfall hazards will extend well away from Laura’s center along the Gulf Coast”.
In Galveston and Port Arthur, Texas, mandatory evacuation orders went into effect at 6am (11:00 GMT) Tuesday. People planning on entering official shelters were told to bring just one bag of personal belongings each, and “have a mask” to reduce the spread of coronavirus.
“If you decide to stay, you’re staying on your own,” Port Arthur Mayor Thurman Bartie said.
Officials in Houston asked residents to prepare supplies in case they lose power for a few days or need to evacuate homes along the coast. Some in the area are still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey three years ago.
State emergencies were declared in Louisiana and Mississippi, and shelters opened with cots set farther apart, among other measures designed to curb infections.
Laura’s unwelcome arrival comes just days before the August 29 anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which breached the levees in New Orleans, flattened much of the Mississippi coast and killed as many as 1,800 people in 2005. Hurricane Rita then struck southwest Louisiana that September 24 as a Category 3 storm.