GALVESTON, Texas ― Laura rapidly gained strength Wednesday, growing into a menacing Category 4 hurricane with the potential for a 20-foot storm surge that forecasters said would be “unsurvivable” and capable of sinking entire communities. Authorities implored coastal residents of Texas and Louisiana to flee.
The storm grew nearly 70 percent in power in just 24 hours to reach Category 3 status and continued to draw energy from the warm Gulf of Mexico waters. The system was on track to arrive late Wednesday or early Thursday as the most powerful hurricane to strike the U.S. so far this year.
“This is shaping up to be just a tremendous storm,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards told The Weather Channel.
The National Hurricane Center kept raising its estimate of Laura’s storm surge, from 10 feet just a couple of days ago to twice that size — a height that forecasters said would be especially deadly.
“Some areas, when they wake up Thursday morning, they’re not going to believe what happened,” said Stacy Stewart, a senior hurricane specialist. Whatever does not get blown down by the wind could easily be toppled by seawater pushing inland.
A Category 4 hurricane can cause damage so catastrophic that power outages may last for months in places, and wide areas could be uninhabitable for weeks or months. The threat of such devastation posed a new disaster-relief challenge for a government already straining to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
On Wednesday afternoon, Laura had maximum sustained winds of 125 mph as it churned about 200 miles southeast of Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Port Arthur, Texas, traveling northwest at 16. Those winds are expected to increase to 145 mph before landfall, pushing water onto more than 450 miles of coast from Texas to Mississippi.
“Heed the advice of your local authorities. If they tell you to go, go! Your life depends on it today,” said Joel Cline, tropical program coordinator at the National Weather Service. “It’s a serious day and you need to listen to them.”
On Twitter, President Donald Trump also urged coastal residents to heed local officials. Hurricane warnings were issued from San Luis Pass, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana, and reached inland for 200 miles. Storm surge warnings were in effect from Freeport, Texas, to the mouth of the Mississippi River.
In the largest U.S. evacuation during this pandemic era, more than half a million people were ordered to flee from their homes near the Texas-Louisiana state line, including the Texas cities of Beaumont, Galveston and Port Arthur, and the low-lying Calcasieu and Cameron parishes in southwestern Louisiana, where forecasters said storm surge topped by waves could submerge entire towns.
A National Weather Service meteorologist in Lake Charles, Louisiana — in the bullseye of Laura’s projected path — took to Facebook Live to deliver an urgent warning for people living south of Interstate 10 in southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas.
“Your life will be in immediate and grave danger beginning this evening if you do not evacuate,” Donald Jones said.
Laura is expected to dump massive rainfall as it moves inland, causing widespread flash flooding in states far from the coast. Flood watches were issued for much of Arkansas, and forecasters said heavy rainfall could arrive by Friday in parts of Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky. Laura is so powerful that it’s expected to become a tropical storm again once it reaches the Atlantic Ocean, potentially menacing the Northeast.
Edwards said evacuees need to reach safety by noon Wednesday, before high winds make highway travel unsafe. In Galveston and Port Arthur, many people boarded buses to Austin and other inland cities.
But even before dawn Wednesday, officials in Austin said the city had run out of free hotel rooms to offer evacuees and had begun directing families fleeing the storm to a shelter nearly 200 miles farther north.
In Texas’ Hardin County, which has more than 57,000 residents along the coast, officials warned that anyone who tried riding out the storm faced days or weeks without electricity.
“It could be difficult for some people to make it through this storm,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told The Weather Channel.
Officials urged people to stay with relatives or in hotels to avoid spreading the virus that causes COVID-19. Buses were stocked with protective equipment and disinfectant, and they would carry fewer passengers to keep people apart, Texas officials said.
Becky Clements, 56, evacuated from Lake Charles after hearing that it could suffer a direct hit, almost exactly 15 years after Hurricane Rita destroyed the city. She and her family found an AirBnb hundreds of miles inland.
“The devastation afterward in our town and that whole corner of the state was just awful,” Clements said. “Whole communities were washed away, never to exist again. … So knowing how devastating the storms are, there was no way we were going to stay for this.”
Clements, a church educator, said she fears for her office, which is in a trailer following recent construction.
“I very much anticipate that my office will be gone when I get back. It will be scattered throughout that field.”
The hurricane also threatens a center of the U.S. energy industry. The government said 84 percent of Gulf oil production and an estimated 61 percent of natural gas production were shut down. Nearly 300 platforms have been evacuated. Consumers are unlikely to see big price hikes however, because the pandemic has decimated demand for fuel.
“If Laura moves further west toward Houston, there will be a much bigger gasoline supply problem,” Oil analyst Andrew Lipow said, since refineries usually take two to three weeks to resume full operations.
Laura closed in on the U.S. 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.
Story by Jeff Martin, John Mone and Stacey Plaisance. Martin reported from Marietta, Georgia, and Plaisance from Stephensville, Louisiana. Associated Press contributors include Paul Weber in Austin, Texas; Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Maryland; Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge; Louisiana; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama; Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Arkansas; Julie Walker in New York, and Sophia Tulp in Atlanta, Georgia.