Hurricane Laura has killed at least five people, including a 14-year-old girl, after trees fell on their homes when the Category 4 storm system smashed into Louisiana and Texas with 150mph winds.
The storm has left 800,000 without power, while residents in Lake Charles, Louisiana, have been told to stay inside after a huge chemical fire erupted at a chlorine plant.
Laura made landfall at 1am with the strongest winds that Louisiana has seen since 1856 and warnings that the storm could rip apart buildings and penetrate up to 200 miles inland.
The hurricane’s first reported fatality was a 14-year-old girl in Leesville, Louisiana, who died when a tree fell on her house, Governor John Bel Edwards revealed.
Just hours later, three more fatalities were reported due to falling trees in Louisiana, including a 60-year-old man in Acadia Parish, and another man in Jackson Parish. The location of the fourth Louisana death is yet to be announced.
Texas recorded its first fatality on Thursday afternoon. One person died in Sabine County after the hurricane tore through East Texas. The person died after a tree fell through their mobile home.
During evacuations early Thursday morning, a bystander was shot and killed in Austin after a fight broke out among 60 people. Police said during the fight between two groups of people, a woman was struck by a bullet.
Authorities said the woman was homeless and had not been involved the fight. She was taken an Austin hospital where she was pronounced dead shortly after 1am.
Residents in Lake Charles have been urged to stay inside with their windows closed and air conditioners turned off after a massive chemical fire broke out at a nearby manufacturing plant. Billowing clouds of smoke could be seen near Interstate 10.
Louisiana Gov Bel Edwards tweeted: ‘There is a chemical fire in the Westlake/Moss Bluff/Sulphur area. Residents are advised to shelter in place until further notice and close your doors and windows.’
Edwards said: ‘If you are in the Westlake/Moss Bluff/Sulphur area, shelter in place, close your windows and doors and TURN OFF YOUR AIR CONDITIONING UNITS. There is a chemical fire. Stay inside and wait for additional direction from local officials.’
Video footage on Twitter showed thick black smoke billowing into the sky over the wind-torn landscape near Interstate 10, which is still closed due to the impact of the hurricane.
There were fears that the cloud could contain toxic chlorine gas – which can be deadly if inhaled.
But in a 1pm press conference State Fire Marshall Butch Browning said there was no detection of chlorine in the air.
He said: ‘What they have found is no low level detection of chlorine off site, which meant where people walk and where people gather, which is a good thing.
‘The cloud, the plume, as it goes in the air and moves out there is chlorine in that obviously, but that those chemicals are falling in the lake, which is the right place for it because it dilutes the chlorine so that the offside impact, we don’t believe, is endangering anyone’
The Westlake police are still investigating the incident a representative said by phone, and authorities were blocking traffic on the interstate and Highway 90 in the meantime.
In a statement from the Louisiana State Police, officers said that technicians are ‘working a hazardous material incident involving a chlorine leak originating from the BioLab chemical manufacturing facility in Westlake’.
‘Citizens should not be engaging in unnecessary travel at this time,’ police said, adding that they ‘are coordinating with plant managers to contain the leak’.
KIK Custom Products, which owns the Biolab plant, told The Weather Channel that the fire was a result of damage sustained during Hurricane Laura.
‘We are deploying a specialized team to the site, and we are working with first responders, local authorities and environmental agencies to contain and mitigate the impact of this incident as quickly as possible,’ the statement reads.
The owners said the plant had been shut down and evacuated before the hurricane arrived.
According to Col Kevin Reeves, the superintendent of the state police, some of the plant’s products began to react and decompose, which caused a fire, during the hurricane. Chlorine gas was then released into the air by the fire.
Governor Edwards also warned residents to stay inside until the threat of the storm is completely over.
‘Now is not the time to go sightseeing. The threat #Laura poses to Louisiana is far from over,’ Edwards tweeted Thursday morning. ‘Stay home, continue to heed warnings from local officials and monitor your local news to stay informed,’ he added.
On Thursday afternoon, the Beauregard Parish Sheriff’s Office said in a statement they are ‘experiencing very high call volume at this time and understand the dire situation the parish is currently in’.
The sheriff’s office is asking residents to ‘limit calls to things or situations of the highest level of emergency’.
‘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 2am.
‘There are houses that are totally gone. They were there yesterday, but now gone,’ he said.
Laura reached land near the small town of Cameron around 30 miles from the Texas border, where officials went door-to-door pleading with people to flee the path of the storm amid fears the entire parish will be inundated.
Earlier on Thursday, the Vermilion Parish Sheriff’s Office in Louisiana warned that anyone choosing not to evacuate ‘must understand that rescue efforts cannot and will not begin until after storm and surge has passed and it is safe to do so’.
‘Please evacuate and if you choose to stay and we can’t get to you, write your name, address, social security number and next of kin and put it a ziplock bag in your pocket. Praying that it does not come to this!’ the sheriff’s office said.
Footage showed torrents of rain flying sideways past street lights in Lake Charles, and streets covered with water closer to the coast, while glass fell from shattered windows and parts of a casino roof were torn away.
The windows of the city’s 22-floor Capital One Tower were blown out, street signs were toppled and pieces of wooden fence and debris from collapsed buildings lay scattered in the flooded streets, video footage on Twitter and Snapchat showed.
Hurricane Laura was downgraded to a tropical storm as of Thursday afternoon.
The National Hurricane Center (NHC) warned that high water levels would persist along the Gulf Coast for several hours as Laura moved north and then northeast.
Texas officials lifted evacuation orders at 11am but they are urging residents who evacuated to allow them more time to assess roadways and clear debris.
‘There are several areas throughout our region who have no power at this time. Electrical crews need first priority. It is dangerous to drive on the roadways that have not been cleared. Downed power lines with live wires, downed trees and other random debris could cause you to get injured,’ an update from Jefferson County’s Office of Emergency Management reads.
The city of Galveston has also lifted its evacuation order. Officials said the city ‘did not sustain wind or storm damage, and water is receding in low-lying areas that experienced street flooding’.
Houston also reported being spared from much of the impact of Hurricane Laura.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Pete Gaynor told Fox News that the agency would make storm damage assessments on Thursday and had the resources to respond to the storm now, adding he expected to see significant damage from wind and building damage.
‘I think we’re generally fortunate – less surge than we thought,’ Gaynor said.
The NHC on Wednesday predicted storm surge would be ‘unsurvivable’ and could penetrate up to 40 miles inland. While the worst projections had not materialized, damaging winds and flooding rainfall would continue spreading inland later on Thursday, the NHC said.
But the storm surge wound up being measured in the range of 9 feet to 12 feet – still bad, but far from the worst forecast.
Gov Edwards said since the water damage was less than anticipated, he hopes that means the homes that were damaged can be made habitable and safe much more quickly.
Laura could spawn tornadoes on Thursday over Arkansas and western Mississippi, and was expected to drop 4 to 8 inches of rain across portions of that region, the NHC said.
The Louisiana National Guard shared images of guardsmen working to clear roadways and assess damages from Hurricane Laura in Lake Charles.
Despite the hurricane weakening, Ken Graham, the director of the National Hurricane Center, warned that Laura is expected to remain a hurricane until it nearly reaches Arkansas.
‘We expect Hurricane Laura to still be a hurricane even when you get up to Shreveport, right on the Arkansas border,’ Graham told CNN.
White House officials said President Donald Trump will visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) later today to be briefed on Hurricane Laura.
In a press statement, the White House said: ‘As we begin to assess the damage, please continue to heed the warnings and instructions of your state and local officials as storm hazards will persist long after the storm has passed.
‘Trump is committed to deploying the full resources of the Federal Government to rescue those in distress, support those in the region affected, and restore disruptions to our communities and infrastructure,’ the statement reads.
More than 800,000 homes and businesses were without power in Texas and Louisiana, as near-constant lightning provided the only light for some and debris flew into windshields and an RV toppled over in torrential rain. According to poweroutage.us, more than 191,000 are without power in Texas and 615,000 in Louisiana, which represents more than 25 per cent of the state.
Officials said some stragglers were pleading for help after earlier refusing to evacuate – but ‘there ain’t no way to get them’.
In Cameron Parish, where Laura came ashore, Nungesser said 50 to 150 people refused pleas to leave and planned to endure the storm, some in elevated homes and even recreational vehicles. The result could be deadly.
‘It’s a very sad situation,’ said Ashley Buller, assistant director of emergency preparedness. ‘We did everything we could to encourage them to leave.’
Drawing energy from the warm Gulf of Mexico, the system arrived in ‘full beast mode’ as the most powerful hurricane to strike the US so far this year and its effects are expected to be felt in Texas, Mississippi and Arkansas.
With hours of violent weather ahead, officials said the extent of destruction likely wouldn’t be clear until daybreak, when search and rescue missions will begin.
Hurricane Laura blew parts of the Golden Nugget Casino’s roof as it tore through the city of Lake Charles on Thursday.
Texas Gov Greg Abbott said major evacuations along coastal Texas ahead of Hurricane Laura ‘no doubt saved lives’.
At 150mph, the hurricane’s winds were the strongest to make landfall in Louisiana since the Last Island Hurricane of 1856, said meteorologist Philip Klotzbach of Colorado State University.
Hurricane Katrina came in at 125mph, although the 2005 storm which caused up to 1,800 deaths and $125billion of damage was worse when measured by pressure.
The winds took Laura close to the threshold of a Category 5 storm, the highest on the Saffir-Simpson scale and defined as sustained winds of 157mph or more.
‘This is one of the strongest storms to impact that section of coastline,’ said David Roth, a forecaster with the National Weather Service (NWS).
The NWS continued: ‘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.’
‘It felt like we were experiencing an earthquake with dozens of aftershocks,’ said CNN correspondent Gary Tuchman on the ground in Lake Charles, a city of 80,000 people.
‘It sounded like a combination of a Boeing 747 going down a runway and a freight train going down the track – it was so loud for hours.’
There were gusts of 137mph in downtown Lake Charles and 127mph in Cameron, a WWLTV meteorologist said, with 95pmh winds in the Lacassine wildlife refuge and 73mph in Port Arthur, Texas.
NBC reporter Jay Gray was nearly knocked over by the wind Thursday morning as he told Good Morning Britain viewers that ‘the intensity of this early band from this storm is as strong as any that I’ve seen in recent memory,’ before the broadcast was cut off for his safety.
The storm grew nearly 87 per cent in power in just 24 hours to a size the National Hurricane Center called ‘extremely dangerous’, making it the powerful hurricane to strike the US so far this year.
Ahead of Laura’s impact, the National Weather Service had warned that some Lake Charles communities will be ‘uninhabitable for weeks or months’.
Laura is forecast to move across Arkansas Thursday night, and over the mid-Mississippi Valley on Friday.
After that, the storm will move eastwards with threats of flash flooding in the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers and the mid-Atlantic states on Friday and Saturday.
In the largest US evacuation since the pandemic began, more than half a million people were ordered Tuesday to flee from an area of the Gulf Coast along the Texas-Louisiana state line.
More than 420,000 residents were told to evacuate the Texas cities of Beaumont, Galveston and Port Arthur.
Another 200,000 were ordered to leave the low-lying Calcasieu and Cameron parishes in southwestern Louisiana, where forecasters said as much as 13 feet of storm surge topped by waves could submerge whole communities.
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 and Saturday.
Forecasters in Little Rock, Arkansas said the remnants of the hurricane could bring up to six inches of rain and flash flooding affecting homes and businesses.
Strong winds are also expected to affect Mississippi until Thursday evening while the tornado warnings also cover parts of the state.
Hurricane Laura also imperiled a center of the US energy industry.
The government said 84 per cent of Gulf oil production and an estimated 61 per cent of natural gas production were shut down. Nearly 300 platforms were evacuated.
When Hurricane Harvey struck in 2017 there were oil and chemical spills, along with heavy air pollution from petrochemical plants and refineries.
While oil prices often spike before a major storm as production slows, consumers are unlikely to see big price changes because the pandemic has already decimated demand for fuel.
Laura passed Cuba and Hispaniola, where it killed nearly two dozen people, including 20 in Haiti and three in the Dominican Republic.
The deaths reportedly included a 10-year-old girl whose home was hit by a tree and a mother and young son crushed by a collapsing wall.
The Atlantic storm season, which runs through November, could be one of the busiest ever this year, with the NHC predicting as many as 25 named storms. Laura is the 12th so far.
A Texas meteorologist reporting on Hurricane Laura was live on the air just before the arrival of the monstrous Category 4 storm when a transformer attached to electrical power lines blew up, causing quite a scare.
Justin Horne of San Antonio-based KSAT-TV was doing a live shot from the coastal town of Orange, Texas, near the border with Louisiana late on Wednesday before Hurricane Laura made landfall.
Amid fierce wind gusts and heavy rain, Horne started reporting from a residential area when a loud explosion was heard a few feet behind him.
The blast created a shiny bolt of blue light, prompting Horne to quickly move out of the way. He was not hurt.
‘That’s not good,’ Horne said as he moved away from the power lines.
‘We’re gonna get out of the way of that.’