HOUSTON (Texas) • Hurricane Laura made landfall early yesterday in south-western Louisiana as one of the most powerful storms to hit the state, with forecasters warning it could push a massive wall of water 65km inland from the sea.
Laura made landfall just before 1am (2pm Singapore time) as a Category 4 storm packing winds of 240kmh in the small town of Cameron, Louisiana, the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said.
It rapidly weakened to a Category 2 storm yesterday morning with maximum sustained winds of 168kmh as it moved north and battered south-west Louisiana, a marshy region particularly prone to storm surges and flooding.
Besides threatening lives, the storm was heading towards the heart of the United States oil industry, forcing oil rigs and refineries to shut down production.
Laura’s winds tore through Lake Charles in Louisiana all night, ripping roofs from buildings and shattering glass windows, showed videos posted on Twitter.
The city of 78,000 was seeing sustained winds of 137kmh and gusts of up to 206kmh in the hour after landfall, the NHC said.
“This is one of the strongest storms to impact that section of coastline,” said Mr David Roth, a forecaster with the National Weather Service. “We worry about that storm surge going so far inland there because it’s basically all marshland north to Interstate 10. There is little to stop the water.”
Officials across the hard-hit area said it would be several hours before they could get out to begin search and rescue missions. Downed trees blocking roadways were expected to be the biggest immediate challenge for rescuers.
“Catastrophic storm surge, extreme winds and flash flooding continues in portions of Louisiana,” the NHC said in a bulletin.
The oil-refining town of Port Arthur was just west of where Laura made landfall. The city of 54,000 was a ghost town late on Wednesday, with just a couple of gas stations and a liquor store open for business.
“People need their vodka,” said cashier Janaka Balasooriya, who said he lived a few blocks away and would ride out the storm at home.
Just hours before Laura smashed into the coast, Port Arthur resident Eric Daw hustled to fill up his car at one of the few petrol stations still open.
He said he had wanted to evacuate earlier, but lacked money for petrol as he was waiting on a disability payment. Mr Daw was headed to a shelter in San Antonio, a 41/2-hour drive, where instead of worrying about the storm he has to contend with Covid-19, echoing the concerns of many others.
“They say we are all supposed to socially distance now,” he said. “But how am I supposed to socially distance in a shelter?”
About 620,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders in Louisiana and Texas.
The storm surge could penetrate inland from Sea Rim State Park, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana, and could raise water levels as high as 6m in parts of Cameron Parish in Louisiana, the NHC said.
“To think that there would be a wall of water over two storeys high coming on shore is very difficult for most to conceive, but that is what is going to happen,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Benjamin Schott, at a news conference on Tuesday. Most of Louisiana’s Cameron Parish would be under water at some point, he added.
Laura could also spawn tornadoes over Louisiana, Arkansas and western Mississippi, and was expected to drop 15cm to 30cm of rain over the region, the NHC said.