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 before 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.”
More than 1.5 million people in the coastal regions of Texas and Louisiana were under some form of evacuation order.
In Calcasieu Parish, La., as winds have reached 93 miles per hour with gusts of 126 miles per hour, Tony Guillory told CNN that it “sounded like a train” was bearing down on the building where essential workers were based.
Mr. Guillory, a member of the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, said that while a mandatory evacuation order was in force, not everyone was able to get out.
“There are still people out there,” he said. “It’s too late.”
The National Weather Service said heavy rain was pounding Lake Charles, Jennings, Lafayette and New Iberia. People in Lake Charles posted videos on Twitter of sheets of rain blowing across the streets and trees buckling in the background. Tens of thousands of people across the region were without electricity.
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 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 were staying 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.
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 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, 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 areas 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 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 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 m.p.h.
It is a part of the state that has been repeatedly devastated by hurricanes, most recently Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2009.
The vulnerability has gotten worse over time. For decades, saltwater has steadily crept inland all along the coast, through shipping channels and coastal erosion, turning freshwater lakes brackish and killing trees that once offered protection from big storms.
Cameron Parish officials 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 in the area 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. More than 100 miles of Interstate 10 that run east from the Texas border, passing through Lake Charles, were closed to traffic on Wednesday.
Cameron Parish is named after Simon Cameron, President Abraham Lincoln’s first secretary of war.
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 next to a golf course. It is the industry and recreational hub of Southwestern Louisiana and a gateway to Texas.
As Laura gained strength over the warm waters of the Gulf’s relatively shallow continental shelf, it brought with it a wall of water that could reach as far as 40 miles inland.
“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 Friday, 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.
What role does climate change play in ‘rapid intensification’?
Hurricane Laura’s explosive strengthening before it made landfall involved one of the most elusive elements of storm science: rapid intensification.
Forecasters have made tremendous advances in their ability to predict the track a storm will take, but rapid intensification remains frustratingly mysterious, said Karthik Balaguru, an earth scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Sequim, Wash. “It’s almost like the holy grail of forecasting,” he said.
Whether it’s Laura this week or Hurricane Michael, which hit the Florida Panhandle with devastating force in 2018, the factors that cause a storm to grow so powerful so quickly include highly complex interactions between ocean and atmosphere. “So many things have to come together for it to happen,” Dr. Balaguru said.
The central factors involved are warm ocean water at the surface, which provides storms with much of their energy, and weak wind shear, because wind shear can disrupt storms.
Climate change is making hurricanes more dangerous in many ways, including increased rainfall and more powerful storm surge. How much climate change has to do with intensification, however, is still being worked out.
The variability of the planet’s weather systems, including a decades-long cycle of warming and cooling in the Atlantic, have long confounded efforts to distinguish the signal of climate change from the background noise of other phenomena.
Reporting was contributed by Alan Blinder, Chelsea Brasted, Mike Ives, Campbell Robertson, Rick Rojas, Marc Santora, Anna Schaverien, John Schwartz and Will Wright.