Hurricane Laura strengthened to an "extremely dangerous" Category 4 storm with maximum winds of 150 mph before its expected landfall Wednesday night or early Thursday along the Texas-Louisiana border.
It is expected to generate a "catastrophic" storm surge that could reach 15 to 20 feet in some areas, the National Hurricane Center said. Experts say Laura will be one of the 10 strongest hurricanes ever to make landfall in the continental United States.
Here's the latest:
- Hurricane Laura intensified to a Category 4 storm Wednesday afternoon.
- It is expected to make landfall on the Gulf Coast around the Texas-Louisiana border Wednesday night or early Thursday.
- More than 500,000 people in those states have been ordered to evacuate.
- Devastation could spread far inland.
- Flooding is a concern, with more than 6 million people under flash flood watches.
The rapidly intensifying storm is expected to inflict damage before and long after it makes landfall, and not just along the Gulf Coast. On Wednesday afternoon, Laura was moving at 15 mph about 120 miles from the coast.
The National Weather Service said devastation could spread far inland in eastern Texas and western Louisiana. The agency's office in Lake Charles, Louisiana, was evacuated Wednesday afternoon.
"Little time remains to protect life and property," the weather service warned at 1 p.m. ET.
In what is now the largest evacuation in the U.S. since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, more than a half-million people have been ordered to flee.
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More than 385,000 residents were told to evacuate from the Texas cities of Beaumont, Galveston and Port Arthur. Ten more Texas cities and counties were under voluntary evacuation orders, including parts of Houston.
About 60 counties were under a disaster declaration Wednesday.
Another 200,000 people were ordered to leave low-lying Calcasieu Parish and parts of Cameron Parish in southwestern Louisiana.
"Cameron Parish is going to be part of the Gulf of Mexico for a couple of days based on this forecast track," said Donald Jones, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Lake Charles.
A fear of getting sick with the coronavirus may make some people hesitant to go to shelters.
"Hopefully it's not that threatening to people, to lives, because people are hesitant to go anywhere due to COVID," Robert Duffy said as he placed sandbags around his home in Morgan City, Louisiana. "Nobody wants to sleep on a gym floor with 200 other people. It's kind of hard to do social distancing."
Officials strongly urged people to leave anyway.
"If you decide to stay, you're staying on your own," said Mayor Thurman Bartie of Port Arthur, Texas. "Don't dial 911. No one's going to answer, and you are on your own."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott warned Wednesday afternoon: "If you do not get out of harm's way, the reality is there will be no ability for rescue crews ... to be able to assist you in any way."
Laura's hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 70 miles Wednesday morning, with tropical storm-force winds up to 175 miles, the weather service said. The harshest conditions are expected from 8 p.m. Wednesday to 6 a.m. Thursday.
Widespread power outages could last for weeks or months, forecasters said.
Flooding is also a concern, with more than 6 million people under flash flood watches from Louisiana to Arkansas on Wednesday.
Parts of the northwestern Gulf Coast from western Louisiana to far eastern Texas could get 15 inches of rain on top of a 10- to 15-foot storm surge that could reach 30 miles inland.
"Some areas when they wake up Thursday morning, they're not going to believe what happened," Stacy Stewart, a senior hurricane specialist for the hurricane center, said Wednesday. "What doesn't get blown down by the wind could easily get knocked down by the rising ocean waters pushing well inland."
A storm surge warning, which means there is a danger of life-threatening inundation from rising water moving inland, was in effect Wednesday for hundreds of miles from Freeport, Texas, to the mouth of the Mississippi River.
"The deepest water will occur along the immediate coast near and to the right of the landfall location, where the surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves," the hurricane center said.
A buoy near Laura clocked a wave 37 feet high Wednesday morning, alarming forecasters.
"Unsurvivable storm surge with large and destructive waves will cause catastrophic damage from Sea Rim State Park, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana, including Calcasieu and Sabine Lakes," the weather service said. "Storm surge is the deadliest hurricane related threat."
In some areas, such as Johnson Bayou, Louisiana, to Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in Grand Chenier, Louisiana, the surge could rise to 20 feet. Hurricane Katrina's storm surge was the highest ever recorded, at 27.8 feet, and Hurricane Ike's maximum surge was 22 feet.
"Understand our state hasn't seen a storm surge like this in many, many decades," Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday in an effort to encourage people under mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders to get out and do it soon.
For the first time in many years, the entire Louisiana National Guard has been activated for Hurricane Laura, Edwards said. Three thousand Guard members are providing support, and the number will increase.
"Hurricane Laura is a very dangerous and rapidly intensifying hurricane," President Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday. "My Administration remains fully engaged with state & local emergency managers to continue preparing and assisting the great people Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Listen to local officials. We are with you!"
The hurricane is threatening a center of the U.S. energy industry, with the government saying 84 percent of oil production and an estimated 61 percent of natural gas production in the Gulf Coast area will shut down, including Valero and Total refineries in Port Arthur and Citgo's plant in Lake Charles.
Consumers are unlikely to see big price hikes, because demand for fuel has plummeted during the pandemic.
Tornadoes could also present a problem across southeast Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and western Mississippi on Wednesday and Thursday.
Flash flood watches were issued for much of Arkansas, and forecasters said heavy rainfall could move to parts of Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky late Friday.
Laura is so powerful that it is expected to become a tropical storm again, set to menace the Northeastern United States, once it reaches the Atlantic Ocean.
Saturday is the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which breached the levees in New Orleans, flattened much of the Mississippi coast and killed as many as 1,800 people in 2005.
Meteorologists said Laura more closely resembles Hurricane Rita, which made landfall about a month later with a storm surge that reached 20 to 30 miles inland.
But Edwards said Laura would be worse. "If you think you're safe because you made it through Rita in southwest Louisiana, understand this storm is going to be more powerful than Rita," he said.