Hurricane Laura is likely to cause catastrophic damage and “unsurvivable storm surge” to the Gulf Coast near the Texas-Louisiana border after strengthening on Wednesday to a Category 4 storm, the National Hurricane Center said.
The storm, ranked on the Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane intensity, was about 320km (200 miles) south-southeast of Port Arthur, Texas, with maximum sustained winds of 220km/h (140m/h) and was expected to pack winds of up to 233km/h (145m/h).
The catastrophic storm surge as high as 20 feet (6 metres) from Sea Rim State Park, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana could penetrate up to 48km (30 miles) inland from the immediate coastline, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in a Wednesday morning advisory.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott urged Texans living in the path of the deadly storm to get out of the storm’s path immediately.
“All the people who could potentially lose their life, if they know – number one in a hurricane – that’s to make sure that you save your own life. It doesn’t do you any good to save your property if you’re going to you lose your life. Property can be replaced. Your life cannot,” Abbott said in an appearance on Fox News television on Wednesday.
More than 420,000 Texas residents and another 200,000 people in neighbouring Louisiana were under mandatory evacuation orders on Wednesday. Buses were being sent to evacuate people who are also being asked to wear masks and maintain a physical distance because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“You only have a few hours to prepare and evacuate for #HurricaneLaura. Wherever you are by noon is where you’ll have to ride out the storm,” Louisiana Governor John Edwards tweeted on Wednesday morning.
Skies were dark and a light rain was falling 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, watching the clouds roll in. Work had prevented him from evacuating yet, but he planned to move 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. Sometimes hurricanes can fuel tornadoes, and I don’t want to be here in Galveston if that happens,” Gilmore said.
Laura battered the Caribbean over the weekend as a tropical storm, killing 24 people between the Dominican Republic and Haiti and damaging thousands of houses and electricity infrastructure.
State and federal emergency management agencies were rushing to provide sheltered accommodations and get first responders in place.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Pete Gaynor posted pictures of teams bringing portable shelters to Camp Beauregard, Louisiana on Tuesday, and Texas Governor Abbott said his state’s National Guard was in place with high-water vehicles and rescue helicopters.
The storm was moving at about 26km/h (16m/h) on Wednesday morning.
“I’m a little excited and nervous, but not scared,” said Carlos Morales, 21, who works for a fencing company in Galveston. He said he planned to ride out the hurricane in his five-foot elevated house about 10 blocks from the beach.
The storm is expected to spawn tornadoes on Wednesday night over Louisiana, far southeastern Texas, and southwestern Mississippi, the NHC said. It added there would likely be widespread flooding from far eastern Texas across Louisiana and Arkansas from Wednesday to Thursday.
Laura will likely drop 13-25cm (5-10 inches) of rain over the region, the NHC said.
Crude oil production in the Gulf of Mexico has been paralysed as companies batten down operations. Output cuts are nearing 90 percent – a level not seen since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Landfall during pandemic
Texas is coming down from a period of peak COVID-19 cases and deaths, and there are currently some 108,000 active cases of the virus, according to the state health department. More than 41,000 hospital beds were occupied as of Tuesday, including more than 12,000 in Houston and Galveston, state data showed.
Hidalgo County, Texas, 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 to encourage physical distancing, the Austin American-Statesman reported.
Houston, which lies in Laura’s path and has closed public COVID-19 testing sites in advance of the storm, was pummeled in 2017 by Hurricane Harvey, which killed at least 68 people and caused $125bn in property damage. The fourth-largest US city, with 2.3 million residents, Houston is about 70km (45 miles) north of the open water of the Gulf of Mexico.
Lina Hidalgo, the top executive for Harris County, which encompasses Houston, warned of deadly winds and a destructive storm surge after Laura makes landfall.
“This storm certainly can cause unprecedented devastation,” Hidalgo said at a news conference on Tuesday. “We truly have to say: prepare for the worst.”