LAKE CHARLES (Louisiana) • Hurricane Laura tore through Louisiana on Thursday, killing six people and flattening buildings across a wide swathe of the state before moving into Arkansas with heavy rain.
Laura’s powerful gusts uprooted trees and four people were crushed to death in separate incidents of trees falling on their homes. The state’s department of health said late on Thursday that there were two more fatalities attributed to the hurricane – a man who drowned while aboard a sinking boat and a man who had carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a generator in his home.
In Westlake, a chemical plant caught fire when hit by Laura, and the flames continued to send a chlorine-infused plume of smoke skyward nearly 24 hours after the hurricane made landfall.
Laura caused less mayhem than predicted – but officials said it remained a dangerous storm and that it would take days to assess the damage. At least 867,000 homes and businesses in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas remained without power on Thursday afternoon.
“This was the most powerful storm to ever make landfall in Louisiana,” Governor John Bel Edwards told a news conference. “It’s continuing to cause damage and life-threatening conditions.”
The storm passed through Lake Charles, with a population of 78,000, in the hour after landfall.
Laura’s maximum sustained winds of 241kmh upon landfall easily bested Katrina, which sparked deadly levee breaches in New Orleans in 2005, and arrived with wind speeds of 201kmh.
Laura’s eye crossed into southern Arkansas late on Thursday afternoon and was headed to the north-east. The storm could dump 178mm of rain on portions of Arkansas, likely causing flash floods.
Laura was downgraded to a tropical depression by the National Hurricane Centre at 10pm, and the forecaster said it would move to the mid-Mississippi Valley later yesterday and then to the mid-Atlantic states today.
Laura’s howling winds levelled buildings and a 4.6m-high wall of water crashed into tiny Cameron, Louisiana, where the hurricane made landfall around 1am.
A 6m storm surge that had been forecast to move 64km inland was avoided when Laura tacked east just before landfall, Mr Edwards said. That meant a mighty gush of water was not fully pushed up the Calcasieu Ship Channel, which would have given the storm surge an easy path far inland.
MOST POWERFUL STORM
This was the most powerful storm to ever make landfall in Louisiana. It’s continuing to cause damage and life-threatening conditions.
LOUISIANA GOVERNOR JOHN BEL EDWARDS, speaking about the damage caused by Hurricane Laura.
Tropical-force winds were felt in nearly every parish across Louisiana – and Mr Edwards warned that the death toll could climb amid increased search and rescue missions. There were downed power lines around Lake Charles and National Guard troops cleared debris from roads on Thursday afternoon.
The windows of the city’s 22-storey Capital One Tower were blown out, and pieces of wooden fence and debris from collapsed buildings lay scattered in the flooded streets, videos on Twitter and Snapchat showed.