Hurricane Laura, now a major Category 3 storm, hurtled toward the coasts of Louisiana and Texas on Wednesday morning, prompting state leaders to make dire warnings about life-threatening conditions as the storm gained further strength.
The storm had sustained winds of about 125 miles per hour as it powered north through the Gulf of Mexico, the National Hurricane Center said, and was expected to intensify to Category 4 strength later in the day.
Laura is set to make landfall early on Thursday morning, most likely near the Texas-Louisiana border, but meteorologists said storm surge, powerful gusts of wind and heavy rains would arrive much sooner, as early as Wednesday afternoon.
The Hurricane Center warned that an “unsurvivable storm surge with large and destructive waves will cause catastrophic damage” along a section of the Gulf Coast near the border. The surge could reach as high as 15 to 20 feet in places and stretch as far as 30 miles inland.
“Only a few hours remain to protect life and property and all actions should be rushed to completion,” it said.
“This is a major hurricane,” Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana said during a briefing on Tuesday evening, beseeching residents again to quickly decide if they were going to evacuate and then start moving. “It’s going to be a large, powerful storm.”
Though the center of the storm is bound for the Texas-Louisiana border., a vast and heavily populated stretch of the Gulf Coast is bracing for the possibility of hurricane-level conditions, reaching from west of Galveston Island in Texas to Morgan City, La.
There is also the threat of flash floods and tornadoes further inland, with the potential for the storm to maintain hurricane strength as it pushes north toward Shreveport, La.
City and county officials in Texas and Louisiana have issued evacuation orders affecting about 500,000 residents, particularly those living in low-lying areas. In Texas, thousands of emergency workers, including the National Guard, were poised to spring into action with boats, aircraft and other equipment when the storm hits.
“There will be a lot of devastation wrecked upon Texas as the storm sweeps through,” Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas said during a briefing on Tuesday.
Laura has drawn comparisons to Hurricane Rita, which smashed the region in 2005.
Laura was approaching the United States on the anniversary of another major Houston-area storm, Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25, 2017, lashing the Gulf Coast with extensive flooding and causing nearly $125 billion in damage.
But Mr. Edwards drew a comparison to another storm, one of the most devastating to hit the region: Hurricane Rita, in 2005, which caused an estimated $25.2 billion in damage. He said the storms resembled each other in their paths and intensity.
Memories of Rita, which left a deep physical and emotional toll on the region, remain vivid for many, even 15 years later.
“That point of reference sometimes helps people understand the seriousness of the situation,” Mr. Edwards said.
This week also marks 15 years since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, overwhelming a poorly designed levee and drainage system and swamping much of New Orleans. The commemorations will mostly be understated because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Stay or go? The coronavirus is complicating the decision to evacuate.
No matter how much experience residents of Louisiana and Texas have with storms blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico, the decision to evacuate can be an agonizing one. But in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, it has become even more complicated.
Many living in Laura’s path, particularly those vulnerable to the virus or caring for older relatives, have found themselves weighing the risks of riding out the storm against potential exposure to the virus. Others simply don’t have the means to escape, as their livelihoods were eviscerated when the economy cratered.
The worst of the storm is bound for a part of Louisiana that has also been hit hard with the coronavirus, with officials noting that Cameron and Calcasieu Parishes have the highest positivity rates for virus tests.
Like many of his neighbors in Lake Charles, where a mandatory evacuation order was issued, Chris Vinn spent much of Tuesday sawing lumber to board up his windows. “You could hear saws all over the neighborhood,” he said.
Mr. Vinn, who tested positive for the coronavirus in July, and his family decided to book a home about three hours east in Lafayette through Airbnb instead of looking for a hotel.
“We do try to take safety precautions as much as possible, so we did not want to be in a hotel full of people or run to a shelter or anything like that,” Mr. Vinn said, adding that his three dogs would also have been a hassle in a hotel.
But memories of Hurricane Rita’s impact in 2005 were keeping Amy L’Hoste from fleeing. She rode out the storm in her grandparents’ home in Ragley, about 20 miles north of Lake Charles.
“It was a night I will never forget,” Ms. L’Hoste said. “It was terrifying when it came through. I’ll never forget waking up the next morning, and it looked like a war zone.”
This time, she will be hunkering down on her own. “I go crabbing by myself, I go fishing by myself, I’ll go camping by myself — I have no problem with that,” Ms. L’Hoste said. “I’ll just add that to the list: Go through a hurricane.”
Evacuation shelters are adjusting for the virus, too.
Although large shelters are being set up throughout the hurricane zone, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas encouraged evacuees to consider booking rooms in hotels and motels instead of using shelters, as a safer way to isolate themselves from others who might be infected.
Mr. Abbott and Chief Nim Kidd of the Texas Division of Emergency Management said buses used for evacuations would carry fewer people than in the past, to let riders stay a safe distance from one another. Planners are bringing in more buses than in previous disasters, to make up for having fewer people on each bus.
Traditional shelters like gymnasiums and convention centers that have hosted hundreds of evacuees in past disasters will be set up to provide “layers of separation” between the occupants, Mr. Abbott said. The shelters and buses will be supplied with hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment like face masks, and state officials plan to dispatch testing teams to the larger shelters.
“The state and local governments are fully aware that they are dealing with a pandemic while they are responding to Hurricane Laura,” the governor said.
Reporting was contributed by Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, David Montgomery, Campbell Robertson and Rick Rojas.