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Hurricane Laura’s ferocious winds, storm surge could be ‘unsurvivable’ along Texas, Louisiana coast

A Cameron Parish sheriff’s deputy at a roadblock as residents evacuate Lake Charles, La., on Wednesday ahead of Hurricane Laura’s landfall. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

LAKE CHARLES, La. — Hurricane Laura, a monster of a storm that picked up ferocious intensity as it traversed the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, threatened a large swath of Texas and Louisiana with what authorities said could be "unsurvivable" flooding and catastrophic winds.

Laura strengthened into a Category 4 hurricane on Wednesday afternoon, its fearsome eyewall trained on the low-lying wetlands that span the border between Texas and Louisiana. Residents fled Lake Charles and Port Arthur, Tex., as the National Weather Service predicted that high tide combined with a potentially historic storm surge could push dangerous waters as far as 40 miles inland in the early hours of Thursday.

These communities have seen hurricanes before, but perhaps nothing like Laura, which had sustained winds of more than 150 mph while out over the water, with gusts of up to 175 mph. That kind of power can uproot trees and toss them like twigs or splinter and flatten homes — as Hurricane Michael did when it similarly intensified rapidly over the gulf and slammed into Mexico Beach, Fla., two years ago, about 500 miles east of here.

Capital Weather Gang updates: Hurricane Laura set to slam into Gulf Coast

Authorities in this coastal city of 78,000 were bracing for some of the worst storm surge flooding in recorded history, with the winds and shape of the coastline combining to drive a wall of water well beyond the shore. Expectations are that the Calcasieu River and the lakes that sit north of the coastline could crest at more than 15 feet above normal. That likely would put much of Lake Charles underwater, so city officials ordered a mandatory evacuation.

By Wednesday afternoon, most Lake Charles residents who planned to get out had done so. Buildings and homes were boarded up across the region, and the streets of the city’s small downtown were desolate. Scattered gas stations were the only businesses that remained open. Authorities had been providing rides out of Calcasieu Parish for those without other means, but those rides ceased at 10 a.m. Wednesday, and Burton Coliseum, the area’s evacuation hub, was shuttered by 3 p.m.

Brittany Fabacher, 34, struggled with whether to flee her family’s Lake Charles mobile home. She and her husband discussed timing and cost and the impact on their 6-year-old son.

“We’ve thought about leaving, but then you don’t know when you’ll be able to get back,” she said, noting that many of her neighbors had evacuated as of Wednesday afternoon. “I’m hoping to just get a lot of water. I’m hoping it won’t blow down the house. We have a generator, but I guess that wouldn’t do no good if there’s no house.”

“We do have a little boat, but it’s an inflatable one,” she said.

By dinner time, the two were not sure if they had made the right decision. They began looking into whether the highways were still open and thought about trying to outrun Laura. Otherwise, they planned to hunker down.

Texas and Louisiana officials implored residents who could be in the path of the hurricane or in coastal areas likely to see flooding to flee, especially since the height of the storm was expected to come in darkness, when rescues are nearly impossible. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) warned residents Wednesday afternoon that it was their “last chance to get out of harm’s way” as weather forecasts predicted catastrophic effects from a hurricane that had a well-defined eye and demonstrated the typical characteristics of a powerhouse, such as lightning emitting from its core.

Hurricane Laura: Maps and time of arrival

Jefferson County, Tex., officials said they feared that as many as half of the 250,000 residents in this oil-producing region near the Louisiana border might try to ride out the storm at home, despite days of highway signs blinking warnings and emergency alerts on their phones.

Shelters are unavailable locally because of the storm threat, said Allison Getz, a county spokeswoman, noting that those who had not evacuated vulnerable areas like Port Arthur as of Wednesday night were out of time.

“There’s still people down there,” Getz said. “There’s some people that aren’t going to leave.”

She said those planning to stay will have to fend for themselves, because emergency personnel will not be available for rescues until after the storm has passed.

“Everybody needs to prepare for the worst,” she said. “It’s completely beyond your control. You’re at the mercy of Mother Nature.”

Thousands evacuated the area, and the county sent dozens of buses earlier this week to spirit away approximately 1,000 people to shelters in inland cities, mainly San Antonio. There were more buses than usual because they could carry fewer passengers because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Cheryl Wisenbaker, a 53-year-old safety director for a construction equipment rental company, said she, her husband Tony and her elderly in-laws had booked hotel rooms to evacuate Beaumont for a town many miles inland, as they usually do during a hurricane. But this year, three elderly relatives — her mother-in-law, her boyfriend, and a grandmother-in-law — refused to go because of the stress, their limited mobility and the coronavirus.

“You can’t make them leave,” she said. “They just don’t want to do it. ”

If they evacuated, she said, there is a chance authorities would not let them return home quickly. That would force them to go out for food, ice, gas, “and then you could end up with, God forbid, covid. And you’re up somewhere in the middle of an evacuation, sick.”

She decided that staying in a sturdy house with food, water and a generator was safe enough.

“Honestly, I am exhausted,” Wisenbaker said, after boarding up the last of her windows. “We just decided we felt like we could safely stay put.”

By evening, though, Wisenbaker reconsidered. She heard that Laura could arrive as a Category 5 storm. She said she got “a sinking feeling.” She and her husband headed west, to College Station.

The Louisiana National Guard was positioning boats in Lake Charles on Wednesday to aid with high-water rescues, and Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said he had activated the entire Louisiana National Guard to help with hurricane response.

Early bands of heavy rain that spun forward of the storm began soaking Port Arthur and Beaumont just after noon on Wednesday, reducing visibility and leaving the highways covered in inches of water. Rivers began to swell. Winds began to kick up. And that wasn’t even the outer edge of Hurricane Laura, which lurked off in the distance.

The storm was tied for the most rapid intensification rate on record in the Gulf of Mexico, increasing from a 75-mph Category 1 storm to a 140-mph Category 4 storm in 24 hours, according to Colorado State University atmospheric scientist Philip Klotzbach.

That intensity spells trouble for a fragile coastal ecosystem. When Laura completes its sweep across the central Gulf Coast, it will leave in its path a drastically and permanently altered landscape. Storm-driven waves will smash through dunes and roll over barrier islands, reshaping more than a third of sandy shorelines in the region, the U.S. Geological Survey predicts.

The anticipated 15-to-20-foot storm surge could carry huge amounts of sand inland across the coast — an area of wetlands already facing severe degradation due to human activity. The process, known as overwash, could leave the region more vulnerable.

“Laura will be seriously altering this environment,” wrote forecaster Jack Sillin of

The hurricane also presents major environmental hazards.

The oil and gas industry, which has a major presence here, has closed down many of its wells, refineries and port facilities in the Gulf of Mexico region; approximately 85 percent of the current oil production and 61 percent of the natural gas production in the gulf had shuttered ahead of the storm, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said. The federal agency said workers have been evacuated from 299 production platforms and nearly half of the 643 manned gulf platforms.

In addition, the region is home to just more than half of the nation’s oil refineries and refined oil products feed pipelines that serve the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states. Valero, the nation’s largest oil refiner, said on Tuesday that it was in the process of shutting down its giant Port Arthur refinery, and the ports of Lake Charles, Beaumont and Port Arthur have closed, according to the Energy Department. ExxonMobil said it was keeping its refinery and chemical plants running in Beaumont, but at reduced rates. Both have taken shutdown steps, the company said.

Like most hurricanes, this one elicited memories of devastating storms of old. Rita ripped through this region in 2005, Ike came in 2008, then Harvey in 2017. Some people here use their experiences as a reason to stay, or to go, to worry, or to brush it off.

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, James Joseph watched people there die around him before rescuers could come to their aid.

So he said he understands the risks of waiting out a major storm that officials predict will be “unsurvivable” in the hardest-hit areas. But as of Wednesday, he hadn’t decided whether he would leave his home along the coast in Baytown, Tex., which is under a voluntary evacuation order.

“I don’t want to come back to nothing,” said Joseph, 47. “At the same time, if you’re in the house and something happens, you can get killed or you can get hurt.”

Joseph said he was waiting for his wife to return from her job selling auto parts to decide whether they will leave their home of two years for a hotel. Joseph’s neighborhood was quiet on Wednesday afternoon, with few signs that people were packing up to go anywhere.

“Some people are going to try to stay,” he said. “Some people are going to try to leave.”

Joseph said experiencing Katrina gave him confidence that he could handle whatever happens: “It kind of don’t intimidate me.”

Sacchetti reported from Beaumont, Tex.; Iati reported from Houston and Baytown, Tex.; and Freedman reported from Washington. Derek Hawkins, Dan Lamothe, Steven Mufson and Jason Samenow in Washington contributed to this report.