Laura weakens to tropical storm, moves inland

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LAKE CHARLES, La. (AP) — One of the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the U.S. pounded the Gulf Coast with wind and rain Thursday as Laura roared ashore in Louisiana near the Texas border, unleashing a fearsome wall of seawater and killing at least two people.

Louisiana took the brunt of the damage when the Category 4 system barreled over Lake Charles, an industrial and casino city of 80,000 people. Laura’s powerful gusts blew out windows in tall buildings and tossed around glass and debris. Police spotted a floating casino that came unmoored and hit a bridge.

Drone video showed water surrounding homes with much of their roofs peeled away. A 14-year-old girl and a 68-year-old man died when trees fell on their homes, authorities said.

The hurricane’s top wind speed of 150 mph (241 kph) put it among the most powerful systems on record in the U.S. Not until 11 hours after landfall did Laura finally weaken into a tropical storm as it churned toward Arkansas.

“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.

Not long after daybreak offered the first glimpse of the destruction, a massive plume of smoke began rising over Lake Charles, where authorities responded to a chlorine leak at 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.

Elsewhere, 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.

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.

“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.

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 700,000 homes and businesses were without power in the two states, according to the website PowerOutage.Us, which tracks utility reports.

Forecasters had warned that the storm surge of 15 to 20 feet would be “unsurvivable” and could push 40 miles inland. They expected “catastrophic” damage along a stretch of coast from Lake Charles to Port Arthur, Texas. Damaging winds extended outward as far as 175 miles (280 kilometers), according to the hurricane center.

Dick Gremillion, the emergency director in Calcasieu Parish, said authorities were unable to get out to help anyone or survey the storm’s effects.

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.

But 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.

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

Becky Clements, 56, did not take chances. She evacuated from Lake Charles after hearing that it could take a direct hit. With memories of Rita’s destruction almost 15 years ago, she and her family found an Airbnb hundreds of miles inland.

“The devastation afterward in our town and that whole corner of the state was just awful,” Clements recalled. “Whole communities were washed away, never to exist again.”

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Pete Gaynor urged people in Laura’s path to stay home, if that’s still safe. “Don’t go out sightseeing. You put yourself, your family at risk, and you put first responders at risk,” he told “CBS This Morning.”

FEMA had resources ready to help survivors, Gaynor said. Edwards mobilized the National Guard to help, and state Department of Wildlife crews had boats prepared for water rescues.

Forecasters expected a weakened Laura to cause widespread flash flooding in states far from the coast. Little Rock, Arkansas, expected gusts of 50 mph (80 kph) and a deluge of rain through Friday. 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.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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