Officials Warn of ‘Catastrophic Storm Surge’ With Hurricane Laura
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Credit…William Widmer for The New York Times

Hurricane Laura, a major Category 4 storm, hurtled toward the coasts of Louisiana and Texas on Wednesday, prompting dire warnings from state leaders about life-threatening conditions as the storm rapidly gained strength.

The storm had sustained winds of about 150 miles per hour with higher gusts as it powered north through the Gulf of Mexico, the National Hurricane Center said. Some strengthening is still possible before landfall, though the storm’s most perilous threat may be what forecasters called an “unsurvivable storm surge.”

Building up in front of Laura as it pushed through the Gulf was a surge of water that could reach as high as 15 to 20 feet in places, the center said, and extend up to 40 miles inland. The center warned that “large and destructive waves will cause catastrophic damage” to a roughly 150-mile portion of the Gulf Coast from Sea Rim State Park in Texas to Intracoastal City, La.

Late on Wednesday, Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas, and Lake Charles, La., were put under extreme wind warnings until 1 a.m. local time. “Treat these imminent extreme winds as if a tornado was approaching,” the National Weather Service in Lake Charles said.

During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, torrential rains submerged Port Arthur and parts of Beaumont. Both cities are in mandatory evacuation areas, and just how much trouble they will be in this time will depend on the last-minute wobbles of the storm as it approaches the coast.

If its 150 m.p.h. winds remain undiminished at landfall, Laura would be among the strongest storms to hit the United States, according to data compiled by Philip Klotzbach, a research scientist at Colorado State University who studies hurricanes. And it would be equal to the strongest-recorded hurricane to come ashore in Louisiana — a massive 1856 storm that so devastated Last Island, a pleasure retreat for sugar barons, that it all but disappeared.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 reached Category 5 strength — which requires sustained winds of at least 157 m.p.h. — while in the Gulf of Mexico but made landfall as Category 3 storms. However, Katrina pushed a deadly storm surge that reached 28 feet in some places; when this met a poorly built flood protection system around New Orleans, most of the city was flooded and more than 1,800 people were killed.

Laura is expected to make landfall late Wednesday night or early Thursday, most likely in the marshy plains near the Texas-Louisiana state line. The cities of Lake Charles, Port Arthur and Beaumont are all gravely threatened by the storm, and all are under mandatory evacuation orders.

“This is a very serious storm,” Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana said during a briefing on Wednesday, pleading with residents again to heed official warnings.

“In the five years I’ve been governor, I don’t believe I’ve had a press conference where it was my intention to convey the sense of urgency that I am trying to convey right now,” Mr. Edwards said. “Our state hasn’t seen a storm surge like this in many many decades.”

City and county officials in Texas and Louisiana have issued evacuation orders affecting more than 500,000 residents, particularly those living in low-lying areas. In Texas, thousands of emergency workers, including the National Guard, were poised to spring into action with boats, aircraft and other equipment when the storm hits.

The director of the National Hurricane Center said in a video posted to Twitter late Wednesday that the swirling rain bands moving through the Gulf of Mexico were “extremely strong,” and that the eyewall of the storm was “getting ever so close” to shore.

“Anybody watching in these areas along the Louisiana coast, I mean, it is too dangerous to be outside,” said the director, Ken Graham. “I hope you’re not there. I hope you evacuated.”

Mr. Graham said that dangerous conditions — including heavy rainfall, high winds and storm surges capable of destroying buildings — were also expected over the next two days in parts of eastern Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.

“Dangerous situation,” he said, “so you got to be in your safe place.”

Though the center of the storm is bound for the Texas-Louisiana state line, a long stretch of the Gulf Coast is bracing for the possibility of hurricane-level conditions, reaching from west of Galveston Island in Texas to Morgan City, La. On Wednesday evening, Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston urged residents to shelter in place.

There is also the threat of flash floods and tornadoes further inland, with the potential for the storm to maintain hurricane strength as it pushes north.

Credit…Dan Anderson/EPA, via Shutterstock

The city of Lake Charles, right in the path of Hurricane Laura, sits some 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. But this does not mean it is safe from an “unsurvivable surge” expected to march in front of the storm.

Between the city and the coast lies mostly treeless marshland, which, most dangerously, is cut through with shipping channels that lead directly in from the Gulf. With a storm surge predicted to be as high as 20 feet, these channels “provide conduits like a hose going in,” said Paul Kemp, a professor of coastal sciences at Louisiana State University.

A city of nearly 80,000, Lake Charles is fueled primarily by the petrochemical industry. Its namesake was once a freshwater lake but is now, because of saltwater influx from the Gulf, essentially a brackish inlet of the ocean.

Refineries sit within sight of downtown, though the city is also known in the region for its casinos, including a 26-story hotel-casino that sits next to a golf course. It is the industry and recreational hub of southwestern Louisiana and a gateway to Texas.

The place expected to take the first direct hit from Hurricane Laura, coastal Cameron Parish, has been repeatedly devastated by hurricanes, Rita and Ike most recently. A wide swath of marsh and farmland, it has a fraction of the population it once had.

The vulnerability has gotten worse over time. For decades, saltwater has steadily crept inland all along the coast, through these shipping channels and coastal erosion, turning freshwater lakes brackish and killing trees that once offered protection from big storms.

The kind of storm surge that Laura is forecast to bring, which builds up easily over the Gulf’s relatively shallow continental shelf, could reach as far as 40 miles inland, forecasters said.

“You’ve got all these things coming together, and then adding insult to injury, this storm is big,” said Jamie Rhome, who oversees the storm surge forecast unit at the National Hurricane Center. “Big storms push harder, exert more force than little storms of the same intensity.”

He said that the surge could very well reach Interstate 10, the main artery along the Gulf, which was flooded most recently in Tropical Storm Imelda last year. During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the interstate disappeared under a choppy ocean, shutting off the primary route between south Louisiana and southeastern Texas for days.

Late on Wednesday night, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development said that a stretch of Interstate 10 from the Texas border to the Lafayette area — a distance of more than 100 miles — had been closed to traffic ahead of the hurricane’s arrival.

Credit…Laura Mckenzie/College Station Eagle, via Associated Press

As Hurricane Laura intensified on Tuesday, the San Antonio Fire Department turned a parking lot near downtown into a registration area for thousands of evacuees trying to obtain government-sponsored hotel vouchers.

By 5 p.m. on Wednesday, more than 2,100 people had already been assigned rooms, with a line of cars more than a mile long waiting to enter the lot.

The Fire Department deployed specialized teams to coordinate the hurricane evacuations, including signing contracts with local hotels, some of which were previously shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Other evacuees were booking rooms on their own, squeezing availability.

Joe Arrington, a spokesman for the Fire Department, said the city’s capacity for additional evacuees was in flux. “It’s stressful but not the breaking point yet,” Mr. Arrington said. In Austin, the state capital, a spokeswoman confirmed that the hotels in the city were full. Authorities were turning away evacuees on Wednesday afternoon.

Some evacuees battled heavy traffic on the way to San Antonio to wait for their vouchers.

Knosha Bartee of Beaumont, Texas, left her home on Tuesday at 4 p.m. and arrived in San Antonio six hours later. On Wednesday she waited close to four hours for a hotel voucher for herself, her best friend and her stepdaughter.

“It hasn’t been as bad as it was in 2005,” Ms. Bartee said, referring to Hurricane Rita. “But it still took us quite a time to get here. I hope everything is safe when we get back.”

Floyd Graham and his girlfriend drove more than 10 hours from Orange, Texas, on the border with Louisiana, to check in at an Econo Lodge. They plan to stay for up to a week.

Mr. Graham, a ship welder originally from Jamaica, said he evacuated every time there was the threat of a hurricane.

“You can’t fight nature,” he said. “Don’t try to fight it. Get out of the way.”

Credit…Eric Thayer/Getty Images

The coastal city of Port Arthur, Texas, which has about 50,000 residents, also sits in Hurricane Laura’s predicted path, prompting the city’s mayor to issue a mandatory evacuation order that took effect on Tuesday morning.

By Wednesday afternoon, with Laura just hours from expected landfall, the state of Texas sent two C-130 aircraft to provide residents a last chance to get out. But after a short wait, the planes took off without taking anyone aboard, said Alex Rupp, the airport director for Jack Brooks Regional Airport.

Mr. Rupp said he believed the planes were recalled but could not say why.

After the aircraft took off, Mr. Rupp said, evacuees began to arrive looking for a way out. He said he was trying to arrange a bus to pick them up.

“That’s going to be the best way to get them out,” he said.

Even as thousands of residents fled the city on Wednesday, some health care workers volunteered to stay behind.

At the Medical Center of Southeast Texas, a hospital in Port Arthur, critical coronavirus patients on ventilators and others on dialysis were evacuated earlier in the week to Houston as the hospital anticipated losing power. The number of patients was reduced by 65 percent, but many could not be moved, and staff members volunteered to stay in the evacuation zone, a hospital spokeswoman said.

“People still go into labor, and people still need appendectomies in the middle of catastrophes,” said Angie Hebert, the spokeswoman.

Ms. Hebert said a Category 4 hurricane would be catastrophic for the region, with guaranteed power outages. But the hospital stocked up on food and water and has a generator to power it through.

“Hospitals are really built to withstand these kinds of storms,” she said. “They’re in the safest place they can be in, outside of evacuating.”

Credit…William Widmer for The New York Times

No matter how much experience residents of Louisiana and Texas have with storms blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico, the decision to evacuate can be an agonizing one. But in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, it has become even more complicated.

Many living in Laura’s path, particularly those vulnerable to the virus or caring for older relatives, have found themselves weighing the risks of riding out the storm against potential exposure to the virus. Others simply don’t have the means to escape, as their livelihoods were eviscerated when the economy cratered.

The worst of the storm is bound for a part of Louisiana that has also been hit hard with the coronavirus, with officials noting that Cameron and Calcasieu Parishes have the state’s highest positivity rates for virus tests.

Residents of Sandpiper Cove, a subsidized housing complex in Galveston, Texas, rushed to evacuate on Tuesday evening, cramming into charter buses headed for shelter at hotels in Austin.

Ericka Bowman, a community navigator for Texas Housers, an organization that advocates for tenants at the 192-unit housing complex, said the families were distraught at the prospect of being displaced.

The pandemic added another layer of insecurity, she noted, as families with several children were cramped together on the vehicles. “There was fear of the sickness from being crowded on these buses,” Ms. Bowman said.

In Newton, a small town in East Texas that is right in Laura’s sights, the Rev. Joe Miller, 75, had planned to hunker down despite a mandatory evacuation.

On Wednesday morning, after the storm grew much stronger overnight, he said he was reconsidering. “I don’t know if it’s too late,” he said. “We couldn’t hardly get out with Rita.”

“I’m starting to worry now,” he added.

Credit…William Widmer for The New York Times

Although large shelters are being set up throughout the hurricane zone, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas encouraged evacuees to consider booking rooms in hotels and motels instead of using shelters, as a safer way to isolate themselves from others who might be infected.

Mr. Abbott and Chief Nim Kidd of the Texas Division of Emergency Management said buses used for evacuations would carry fewer people than in the past, to let riders stay a safe distance from one another. Planners are bringing in more buses than in previous disasters, to make up for having fewer people on each bus.

Traditional shelters like gymnasiums and convention centers that have hosted hundreds of evacuees in past disasters will be set up to provide “layers of separation” between the occupants, Mr. Abbott said. The shelters and buses will be supplied with hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment like face masks, and state officials plan to dispatch testing teams to the larger shelters.

“The state and local governments are fully aware that they are dealing with a pandemic while they are responding to Hurricane Laura,” the governor said.

In Louisiana, the state had helped transported about 900 people in the Lake Charles area to hotel rooms, mostly around Baton Rouge, said Mike Steele, a spokesman for the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Credit…William Widmer for The New York Times

Hurricane Laura’s explosive strengthening overnight involves one of the most elusive elements of storm science: rapid intensification.

Forecasters have made tremendous advances in their ability to predict the track a storm will take, but rapid intensification remains frustratingly mysterious, said Karthik Balaguru, an earth scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Sequim, Wash. “It’s almost like the holy grail of forecasting,” he said.

Whether it’s Laura this week or Hurricane Michael, which hit the Florida Panhandle with devastating force in 2018, the factors that cause a storm to grow so powerful so quickly include highly complex interactions between ocean and atmosphere. “So many things have to come together for it to happen,” said Dr. Balaguru.

The central factors involved are warm ocean water at the surface, which provides storms with much of their energy, and weak wind shear, because wind shear can actually disrupt storms. “It looks like Laura is experiencing very, very warm ocean conditions and relatively low wind shear,” Dr. Balaguru said.

Climate change is making hurricanes more dangerous in many ways, including increased rainfall and more powerful storm surge. How much climate change has to do with intensification, however, is still being worked out.

The variability of the planet’s weather systems, including phenomena like a decades-long cycle of warming and cooling in the Atlantic known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, have long confounded efforts to distinguish the signal of climate change from the background noise of other phenomena.

Dr. Balaguru was a co-author on a 2018 paper on rapid intensification that called the Atlantic oscillation a major factor, though the paper stated that the role of climate change “cannot be ruled out.” A paper published earlier this year stakes out a more prominent role for climate change, and calls into question the influence from the Atlantic oscillation.

Michael Mann, a climate expert at Penn State University and an author of the new study, said the trend toward more destructive storms is “a consequence of human-caused planetary warming.”

Reporting was contributed by Alan Blinder, Chelsea Brasted, James Dobbins, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, David Montgomery, Campbell Robertson, Rick Rojas, John Schwartz and Lucy Tompkins.

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