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Hurricane Laura by the numbers: Winds to 154 mph, a 15-foot surge and yet another Category 4+ on U.S. soil

Hurricane Laura approaches landfall Thursday with considerable lightning in and around the eyewall. (Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies)
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When Hurricane Laura struck western Louisiana early Thursday morning with top sustained winds of 150 mph, it became one of the strongest storms on record to hit the United States.

While water is still receding, people are combing through rubble, and tabulations of losses will take months, if not longer.

Let’s take a look at the impact through some of the key numbers so far.

1.5 million: Number of people under some sort of evacuation order across the northern Gulf Coast in advance of the storm. Some stayed behind in an extremely vulnerable region ravaged by Hurricane Rita in 2005.

More than 910,000: Total number of customers who lost electricity during the storm.

Hurricane Laura’s rapid intensification is a sign of a warming climate, scientists say

65 mph: Intensity increase in the storm’s maximum sustained winds during a 24-hour period. Hurricane Laura joined a growing list of storms to rapidly intensify, in this case straight through landfall. Colorado State University hurricane researcher Philip Klotzbach told the Capital Weather Gang that Hurricane Laura was the fastest intensifying storm in the Gulf of Mexico since Hurricane Karl in 2010.

938 millibars: Hurricane Laura’s minimum central pressure at landfall. Laura joined an elite list of the most severe storms to hit Louisiana. For comparison, Hurricane Katrina, while weakening, came ashore with an astounding 920 millibars central pressure (in general, the lower the pressure, the stronger the storm).

But minimum central air pressure tells only part of the story on this storm’s intensity.

150 mph: Laura had exceptional winds for a storm of its pressure, having explosively developed during the 24 hours before landfall. Its sustained winds of 150 mph, with higher gusts as it roared ashore, put Hurricane Laura in a tie for the top spot in Louisiana for wind and the top five for the country overall.

154 mph: The storm’s peak observed wind gust recorded at Holly Beach, La. at 12:33 a.m. local time Thursday just before making landfall (at 1 a.m.).

137 mph - 30 miles inland: Usually a hurricane’s strongest winds are barely felt on land, although when they’re shredding trees that fact can be largely academic. It’s also true that getting the strongest winds to hit a sparse weather network is difficult, especially in the part of coastal Louisiana where Laura first landed. So much of that area is low-lying and sparsely populated, without reliable weather sensors such as those installed at airports, that we don’t have many firm indications of the winds experienced right where Laura came ashore.

Those factors make a gust of 137 mph at Lake Charles, La., something to behold, especially since it occurred 30 miles from the landfall location. Multiple gusts past 100 mph were recorded in the region in and around landfall, most of them at stations maintained by the National Ocean Service, which is part of NOAA. Lake Charles also had sustained winds of 98 mph for a time.

$10 million: Even the infrastructure built to warn us of severe weather couldn’t stand up to Laura’s fury. One $10 million Doppler radar was left decapitated by the hurricane, its final image a haunting relic of the storm.

This isn’t the first time radars have been knocked out by a hurricane or other severe storm, but total removals of the actual radar unit are rare. One example was the destruction of the Doppler radar in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria.

The damage left behind by Laura’s winds is beyond sobering.

Inside Hurricane Laura: Join storm chasers studying the eye of the storm

12 to 21 feet: Peak storm surge based on the National Hurricane Center estimate. This compares with forecasts of “unsurvivable” water rise of 15 to 20 feet in advance of the storm. One observing station in southwest Louisiana indicated a surge of 13 to 15 feet, but the region is sparsely populated, with few gauges. Scientists are studying the region just to the right of where the storm tracked to determine the actual surge heights.

In a Federal Emergency Management Agency senior leadership briefing obtained by The Washington Post, the area just to the east of the landfall location of Cameron, La., is delineated as having seen a 12-to-21-foot surge, based on an analysis Thursday from the National Hurricane Center.

As the storm plowed into the swamps of southern Louisiana, it was feared that surge could move as far as 40 miles inland.

In many places near the coast, water is still receding. Scientists should have a better idea of the maximum surge in the days ahead as additional data is analyzed.

12+ inches: Rainfall with Laura is ongoing, and a risk for some flooding moves from the Mid-South to the Mid-Atlantic over the next two days.

So far, maximum rain totals are 12 inches or greater, with a sizable chunk of Louisiana and the Texas border area, then into Arkansas, picking up five to 10 inches. Unlike a number of hurricanes to affect the country in recent years, Laura moved at a fast clip, which limited the overall freshwater flooding.

Seven storms: If it already feels like a long season, it’s probably because there have been seven tropical storms and hurricanes that made landfall in the United States this year. That’s a record to date and more than in an average season.

0.6 miles: The storm track forecast was a major victory for the National Hurricane Center, which accurately predicted the landfall location within less than a mile, and at the exact time, a whopping 87 hours in advance. What’s especially remarkable about this is that, despite a windshield-wiper effect as normally reliable computer models such as the European model made large shifts in their storm track projections, the NHC stuck to its prediction.

National Hurricane Center nailed track forecast for Laura within a mile and 3 days in advance

That increase in forecast track accuracy is part of a long-term trend of better forecasts year-to-year.

$25 to $30 billion: Early estimates of damages, per an analysis from AccuWeather. If this range proves to be true, then Laura will rank high on the list of costliest storms on record to strike the United States.

The consensus is it could have been much worse, had the track wobbled its way toward more populated areas. For instance, impacts on the Texas coast toward Houston were less than once feared, and even a jog of 10 miles to the west could’ve flooded the entire city of Lake Charles, which has a population of about 80,000.

Six Category 4+ storms: Laura is the sixth Category 4+ hurricane to hit the United States or its territories since Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. It’s also the third to do so in the Gulf of Mexico. Five of the six occurred in an unprecedented 14 months from 2017 to 2018. Hurricane Dorian also threatened to become one in 2019, after ravaging the Bahamas as a Category 5.

Two weeks: The amount of time left until the statistical peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. Perhaps among the scariest numbers is this one, which tells the tale that we’re not even close to done with the 2020 hurricane season. That’s more than enough time for numerous additional storms, which is what most forecasts suggest will be the case, given that we’re expected to dip into the Greek alphabet for storm names this season.

An earlier version of this story said Hurricane Laura tied for the fastest-intensifying storm on record in the Gulf of Mexico, along with Hurricane Karl in 2010. New information shows Hurricane Laura was the fastest-intensifying storm on record since Hurricane Karl, but a storm in 1932 still holds the top spot. This story has been updated.