Now a Category 1 storm, Laura blasts Gulf Coast for two days

Lake Charles, Baton Rouge, and Stephensville, La.

Hurricane Laura pounded the Gulf Coast with ferocious wind, torrential rain, and unleashed a wall of seawater that could push 40 miles inland as the Category 4 storm roared ashore Thursday in Louisiana near the Texas border. At least one person was killed.

Laura battered a tall building in Lake Charles, blowing out windows as glass and debris flew to the ground. Police spotted a floating casino that came unmoored and hit a bridge. But hours after the hurricane made landfall, the wind and rain were still blowing too hard for authorities to check for survivors.

Gov. John Bel Edwards reported Louisiana’s first fatality – a 14-year-old girl who died when a tree fell on her home in Leesville.

Hundreds of thousands of people were ordered to evacuate ahead of the hurricane, but not everyone fled from the area, which was devastated by Hurricane Rita in 2005.

The hurricane’s top wind speed of 150 mph put it among the most powerful systems on record in the U.S.

“It looks like 1,000 tornadoes went through here. It’s just destruction everywhere,” said Brett Geymann, who rode out the storm with three family members in Moss Bluff, near Lake Charles. He described Laura passing over his house with the roar of a jet engine around 2 a.m.

“There are houses that are totally gone. They were there yesterday, but now gone,” he said.

An apparent chemical fire broke out near Lake Charles, sending up plumes of smoke visible for miles. The source of the blaze was not immediately clear, but Mr. Edwards urged nearby residents to shelter in place and turn off air conditioners.

Hours after the system made landfall, initial reports offered hope that the destruction might be somewhat less than originally feared, but a full damage assessment could take days. Wind and rain blew too hard for authorities to check for survivors in some hard-hit places. Meanwhile, Laura began weakening as it churned toward Arkansas, which was under an unusual tropical storm warning.

“There are some people still in town, and people are calling … but there ain’t no way to get to them,” Tony Guillory, president of the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, said over the phone from a Lake Charles government building that was shaking from the storm.

Mr. Guillory said he hoped the stranded people could be rescued later in the day, but he feared that blocked roads, downed power lines, and floodwaters could get in the way.

“We know anyone that stayed that close to the coast, we’ve got to pray for them, because looking at the storm surge, there would be little chance of survival,” Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser told ABC’s Good Morning America.

More than 600,000 homes and businesses were without power in the two states, according to the website PowerOutage.Us, which tracks utility reports.

The National Hurricane Center said Laura slammed the coast with winds of 150 mph at 1 a.m. CDT near Cameron, a 400-person community about 30 miles east of the Texas border. Forecasters had warned that the storm surge would be “unsurvivable” and the damage “catastrophic.”

They predicted a storm surge of 15 to 20 feet in Port Arthur, Texas, and a stretch of Louisiana including Lake Charles, a city of 80,000 people on Lake Calcasieu.

“This surge could penetrate up to 40 miles inland from the immediate coastline, and floodwaters will not fully recede for several days,” the hurricane center said.

Hours after it arrived, Laura weakened to a Category 1 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph. The storm was 65 miles southeast of Shreveport and moving north. Damaging winds extended outward as far as 175 miles, according to the hurricane center.

Dick Gremillion, the emergency director in Calcasieu Parish, said authorities were unable to get out to assess damage.

“The wind is still over 50 mph. It’s going to have to drop significantly before they can even run any emergency calls. We also need daylight,” Mr. Gremillion said in an interview with Lake Charles television station KPLC.

More than 580,000 coastal residents were ordered to join the largest evacuation since the coronavirus pandemic began and many did, filling hotels and sleeping in cars since officials did not want to open large shelters that could invite more spread of COVID-19.

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