The storm had rapidly intensified before it made landfall early Thursday as a Category 4 storm, becoming one of the most powerful hurricanes to strike the Gulf Coast in decades. It came ashore at 1 a.m. near Cameron, La., about 35 miles east of the Texas border, packing 150 mph peak winds.
Even as Laura weakened Thursday morning, it still unleashed hurricane-force winds as far inland as central Louisiana, ravaging vulnerable communities before being downgraded to a tropical storm in the afternoon.
“We have sustained a tremendous amount of damage,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said at an afternoon news conference, even as he gave thanks that the state had been spared the worst-case scenario for which officials had braced. “We have thousands and thousands of our fellow citizens whose lives are upside down.”
President Trump said during a visit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Thursday that he plans to tour areas hit by Laura this weekend.
“We’ll probably be going on Saturday or Sunday,” said Trump, who added that he had considered postponing his Thursday night Republican National Convention speech at the White House but decided it wasn’t necessary. “We’ll be heading to Texas and Louisiana, and maybe an additional stop.”
Downtown Lake Charles, La., took one of the heaviest hits from Laura’s brutal winds, which shredded trees, peeled off roofs, obliterated buildings and tossed lampposts into the streets. An industrial plant nearby that makes chlorine-based products caught fire, sending caustic smoke throughout the area and leading to a shelter-in-place order.
“It was a very, very bad wind storm,” said Tom Hoefer, communications director for Calcasieu Parish’s emergency management office.
The storm arrived in darkness, and the daylight on Thursday illuminated just how bad it was.
Laura blew out windows in one of the only high-rises in Lake Charles, a city of 78,000, and the green glass scattered across surrounding streets. Power lines lay on the ground and streets remained impassable because of debris and flooding.
On Ryan Street, a restaurant and bar hub, windows on many buildings had been shattered. Part of the roof peeled off a nearby casino. A large antenna at a local television station was crunched and mangled.
“Wow, it’s twisted like it’s a piece of paper,” Lawanda Levy, 45, said as she surveyed the damage.
In the town of Sulphur, La., gas station canopies lay toppled or shredded. Tractor-trailers sat overturned both on the highway and in parking lots. Restaurants were missing their windows, and roof after roof had suffered serious damage.
In Toomey, La., about 25 miles west of Lake Charles, industrial buildings lay in ruin. The westbound side of Interstate 10 was largely blocked by fallen trees. Mobile homes were heavily damaged or destroyed.
“The roof was peeling off, the walls were starting to move and the chimney fell off the house,” Vicky Trahan, who lives in a rural area about 40 miles north of Lake Charles, said of the harrowing hours when Laura barreled through. “It was the worst experience of my life.”
A 14-year-old girl was killed when a tree fell on her family’s home during the storm, Edwards (D) said Thursday, describing the storm’s first reported fatality. The teenager was one of at least four deaths attributed to the hurricane, Edwards said, each caused by trees falling on residences. None were in extreme southwest Louisiana, where the hurricane came ashore. Instead, they were in Vernon, Jackson and Acadia parishes, all north or northeast of the area where Laura made landfall early Thursday.
Edwards warned that more fatalities could surface during search and rescue efforts, which were continuing along the coast, as well as in communities farther north. Cameron, La., the community nearest to where Laura’s eyewall hit the coast and a repeat hurricane victim in Louisiana’s low-lying wetlands, remained almost entirely inaccessible late Thursday.
Those in Laura’s path faced more hazards than just its fierce winds and rain.
Firefighters on Thursday were battling a dangerous chemical fire in Westlake, La., that sparked after Hurricane Laura slammed into the area. Authorities warned that the smoke could contain chlorine, nitric oxide and other toxins used in industrial and commercial disinfectants and for swimming pool maintenance.
KIK Custom Products confirmed that the fire was burning at a Biolab plant that sits in an industrial park along I-10.
Westlake, population 4,600, sits next to Lake Charles and is home to numerous petrochemical refineries and chemical plants. The state Department of Environmental Quality said air-quality monitors were stationed near the facility to determine the types of chemicals that were burning. The federal Environmental Protection Agency scrambled an airplane to monitor the situation from the air, said DEQ spokesman Gregory Langley.
Officials shut down the interstate highway that lines the property and issued a shelter-in-place order for Sulphur, warning people to stay inside and to close their windows and doors.
Even as Laura battered many communities, it spared others that had once been in its crosshairs. Forecasters had warned of the potential of a gigantic storm surge crushing coastal towns in Louisiana and Texas, but the storm ultimately tracked further east. Much of the heaviest storm surge pushed through wetlands in a largely unpopulated area of Louisiana.
In Port Arthur, Tex., a low-lying city of 54,000 off the Gulf of Mexico, many residents had girded themselves for catastrophe. Some parked cars and trucks on overpasses or on jacks to lift them away from the flooding that can surge inland for miles.
But the city awakened Thursday to relatively minor damage. Traffic lights were not working. Dead tree limbs, roof shingles and blown-over signs littered streets and driveways. A billboard on Memorial Boulevard tumbled to the ground.
Three houses caught fire overnight, possibly from electrical failures. But nobody was home, and there were no injuries, a fire official said.
“That was a weak storm,” said Port Arthur Fire Captain Michael Adaway. “I’ve been in this area my whole life, and that storm was nothing.”
Lenora Cade returned to the tan home with sea-green shutters she rebuilt after Hurricane Harvey destroyed it in 2017. That storm washed away most of the photos she had of her son, Keneefe, who had died in 2013 at 46 years old from a heart condition.
Now 70, she said she had prayed she wouldn’t have to endure another flood.
“Thank God,” Cade said as she returned home to her cats, Stevie and Footsie, after spending the night in a hotel for safety. “God spared us. He did.”
Jefferson County, which includes Port Arthur and nearby Beaumont along the Louisiana border, was among several in the region that had ordered thousands of people to evacuate ahead of the hurricane. But on Thursday, even as officials continued to assess the damage, they were able to exhale.
“We appear to have dodged a bullet,” said county spokeswoman Allison Getz, adding that nobody in Jefferson or neighboring Orange County had called overnight to report an emergency. “I don’t know how we got so lucky.”
She said heavy winds downed trees, tilted utility poles and plucked shingles from roofs, “but nothing to the significance of the catastrophic level that we anticipated.”
Wind gusts never surpassed 85 mph in the coastal Texas communities. The most significant issue is that 75,000 people initially lost power in Jefferson County, Getz said, but by 8 a.m. local time, that number had fallen to 40,000.
“We just got incredibly lucky,” she said. “It’s a good problem to have.”
Hurricane Laura was downgraded to a tropical storm by Thursday afternoon. By day’s end, it had pushed north into Arkansas and is expected to sweep through the Tennessee Valley and the Mid-Atlantic from Friday into Saturday, bringing with it flash flooding and pockets of damaging winds.
Tornado watches were in effect from central and southeast Arkansas southward through western Mississippi and southeast Louisiana. Forecasters said the storm is likely to generate some strong thunderstorms in both the Tennessee Valley and Mid-Atlantic, including some tornadoes, especially south and east of its track.
But even as Laura leaves the Gulf Coast behind, those who encountered it will be wrestling with its aftermath for months.
Trahan, who endured a frightening night as the storm lashed her farm, said she and her husband moved north from the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Rita in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008 damaged their home.
“We got ourselves a house on a hill to avoid all that,” she said, taking in the damage to her family’s house and barn. “I’ve got water dripping into rooms. The beds are soaked. We’ll just have to salvage what we can.”
Cusick reported from Sulphur, Lake Charles and Grand Lake, La.; Sacchetti reported from Beaumont and Port Arthur, Tex.; Iati reported from DeQuincy, La.; and Dennis reported from Washington. Matthew Cappucci, Andrew Freedman, Nick Miroff, Steven Mufson, Darryl Fears, Felicia Sonmez and Jason Samenow contributed to this report.