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Before and after pictures reveal the devastation wrought by Hurricane Laura

Hurricane Laura, one of the strongest to ever strike the U.S., killed at least six people and left 750,000 without power as it wrought billions of dollars worth of damage on its destructive path through the Gulf Coast Thursday. 

Flooding and more tornadoes were possible as the leftovers of the once fearsome Category 4 hurricane move eastward through Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama Friday after an apparent tornado tore through a church and homes in Arkansas Thursday night. 

Laura weakened to a tropical depression late Thursday, but could become a tropical storm again when it moves off the mid-Atlantic coast on Saturday. 

More than 580,000 people along the Gulf Coast had evacuated from the terrifying storm as before and after aerial images showed the severity of the destruction is caused.  

The storm sheared off roofs and maintained ferocious strength while it continued to rage hundreds of miles inland.

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

The fatalities included a 14-year-old girl and a 68-year-old man who died when trees fell on their homes in Louisiana, as well as a 24-year-old man who died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator inside his residence. Another man drowned in a boat that sank during the storm, authorities said.

No deaths had been confirmed in Texas, which Republican Governor Greg Abbott said would amount to ‘a miracle’.

In Arkansas on Friday morning, trees were down and power was out as the remnants of Laura spun over the state.

No injuries were immediately reported in Arkansas, where around 45,000 customers were without electricity.

More than 750,000 homes and businesses were without power in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas in the storm’s wake, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks utility reports. 

Laura weakened to a tropical depression late Thursday, but more tornadoes and up to 5 inches of rain were expected across the Tennessee Valley region before the system closed in on the Mid-Atlantic states by Saturday.

The National Weather Service reported that the storm was losing its tropical characteristics early Friday morning but that a flood threat continued. 

On Saturday, Laura is expected to produce 1 to 2 inches with isolated maximum amounts of 3 inches across portions of the central and southern Appalachians, and the Mid-Atlantic States before strengthening again slightly before it moves into the northwest Atlantic. 

A sense of relief prevailed that Laura was not the annihilating menace forecasters had feared, but a full assessment of the damage could take days. 

Thunderstorms and sizzling heat were expected in the disaster area on Friday, complicating recovery efforts. 

Satellite images have laid bare the extent of the destruction caused by the Category 4 storm, showing entire neighborhoods submerged in green-brown floodwater, flattened communities and an airport hangar shredded into ribbons of metal.

The Lake Charles Regional Airport can be seen from above with buildings around it completely crumbled into shattered piles of wood and steel.  

Aerial images of the Grand Lake High school are barely recognizable after the storm, with the buildings around the school completely wiped off the map, and surrounding trees also nowhere to be seen. 

Roads around residential neighborhoods can also be seen overflowing with brown rain water, leaking into backyards, and extensive damage to buildings and nearby foliage. 

According to reports from the ground in Louisiana, most of the homes that remained intact still had missing shingles, shattered windows and yards strewn with debris. 

‘It is clear that we did not sustain and suffer the absolute, catastrophic damage that we thought was likely,’ Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said. ‘But we have sustained a tremendous amount of damage.’

He called Laura the most powerful hurricane to strike Louisiana, meaning it surpassed even Katrina, which was a Category 3 storm when it hit in 2005.

Laura was so strong that earlier this week, footage emerged of the storm driving the mighty Mississippi River backwards in Louisiana. 

The unique occurrence was shared on social media  after barges were spotted struggling to make their way along the river at around 4 p.m. Wednesday in Arabi, a suburb of New Orleans.

‘Hurricane Laura is forcing the Mississippi to follow north instead of south,’ wrote Chris Dier on Twitter. ‘Barges are now having to fight these tides as they go downriver. Surreal.’

John Lewis, a research associate professor at the Tulane ByWater Institute, replied to the post, however, saying that it was caused by the winds not because of the storm surge which was not severe enough to cause a reversal of flow. 

The river previously flowed backward during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Isaac in 2012.  

Not until 11 hours after landfall did Laura finally lose hurricane status as it plowed north and thrashed Arkansas, and even by Thursday evening, it remained a tropical storm with winds of 40mph.

The storm came ashore in low-lying Louisiana and clobbered Lake Charles, an industrial and casino city of 80,000 people. 

On Broad Street, many buildings had partially collapsed, and those that didn’t were missing chunks. Windows were blown out, awnings ripped away and trees split in half in eerily misshapen ways. 

Police spotted a floating casino that came unmoored and hit a bridge. At the local airport, planes were overturned, some on top of each other.

In front of the courthouse was a Confederate statue that local officials had voted to keep in place just days earlier. After Laura, it was toppled.

‘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.

Not long after daybreak gave the first glimpse of the destruction, a massive plume of smoke visible for miles began rising from a chemical plant. 

Police said the leak was at a facility run by Biolab, which manufactures chemicals used in household cleaners such as Comet bleach scrub and chlorine powder for pools.

Nearby residents were told to close their doors and windows and turn off air conditioners. State and federal aircraft headed into the skies over the coast to look for signs of any other industrial damage. 

Chevellce Dunn considered herself among the fortunate after a night spent huddling on a sofa with her son, daughter and four nieces and nephews as winds rocked their home in Orange, Texas. 

Left without power in sweltering heat, she didn’t know when power might be restored.

‘It ain’t going to be easy. As long as my kids are fine, I’m fine,’ Dunn said.

President Donald Trump planned to visit the Gulf Coast this weekend to tour the damage.

More than 580,000 coastal residents evacuated under the shadow of a coronavirus pandemic and calls for masks and social distancing to combat its spread. 

It was the largest evacuation order since the pandemic began and many people followed it, filling hotels and sleeping in cars. 

Although not everyone fled from the coast, officials credited those who did leave for minimizing the loss of life.

Forecasters had warned that the storm surge of 15 to 20 feet would be ‘unsurvivable’ and could push 40 miles inland. Edwards said the storm surge wound up being measured in the range of 9 feet to 12 feet – still bad, but far from the worst forecast. He was hopeful that damaged homes could quickly be made habitable.

The priority, Edwards said, was search and rescue, followed by efforts to find hotel or motel rooms for those unable to stay in their homes. Officials in Texas and Louisiana have both sought to avoid traditional mass shelters for evacuees over fears of spreading COVID-19, and Edwards was concerned that the storm would inhibit coronavirus testing as schools and universities are reopening.

Bucky Millet, 78, of Lake Arthur, Louisiana, considered evacuating but decided to ride out the storm with family due to concerns about the coronavirus. 

He said a small tornado blew the cover off the bed of his pickup and made him think the roof on his house was next.

‘You’d hear a crack and a boom and everything shaking,’ he said.

The force of Laura’s winds blew out every window of the living room in the Lake Charles house where Bethany Agosto survived the storm with her sister and two others. They sought safety in a closet when the hurricane was at its worst.

‘It was like a jigsaw puzzle in this closet. We were on top of each other, just holding each other and crying,’ Agosto said.

The storm was so powerful that it could regain strength after turning east and reaching the Atlantic Ocean, potentially threatening the densely populated Northeast.

Laura hit the U.S. after killing nearly two dozen people on the island of Hispaniola, including 20 in Haiti and three in the Dominican Republic, where it knocked out power and caused intense flooding.

It was the seventh named storm to strike the U.S. this year, setting a new record for U.S. landfalls by the end of August. 

The old record was six in 1886 and 1916, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.

Laura was tied with five other storms for fifth most powerful U.S. hurricane, behind the 1935’s Labor Day storm, 1969’s Camille, 1992’s Andrew and 2004’s Charley, Klotzbach said.

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