Hurricane Laura 2020: The Category 4 storm could hit the Gulf Coast

The National Hurricane Center is warning that Hurricane Laura will cause an “unsurvivable storm surge” reaching 30 miles inland and rising up to 20 feet as the storm makes landfall in Texas and Louisiana on Wednesday evening as an “extremely dangerous Category 4 strength, with winds reaching 140 mph.

During a Wednesday news conference, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said Laura’s storm surge would reach levels not seen since 1957’s Hurricane Audrey.

“The storm surge flooding is starting now in Louisiana,” Edwards said. “It’s well ahead of the storm. It will just get worse over the next day or so.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott meanwhile implored residents to evacuate. “The conditions of this storm are unsurvivable, and I urge Southeast Texans to take advantage of these final few hours to evacuate, secure their property, and take all precautions to keep themselves and their loved ones safe,” he said at a Wednesday press conference.

Laura is now wide enough to bring hurricane-force winds topping 74 mph to the nearly 300-mile stretch from San Luis Pass, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana. It’s expected to cause flash floods and a life-threatening storm surge from Freeport, Texas, to the mouth of the Mississippi River, inundating areas that rarely see such high water levels.

About 20 million people reside in the path of the storm and more than 500,000 have been ordered to evacuate, a task complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The combination of a dangerous storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline,” the NHC reported in its latest hurricane bulletin. Storm surge, where high winds push water inland several feet above high tide, is often the deadliest consequence of hurricanes.

Laura is also expected to spawn tornadoes and drench the Gulf Coast with up to 10 inches of rainfall. Initially, Laura was projected to make landfall alongside Hurricane Marco, but Marco weakened to tropical storm strength and quickly fizzled out as it made landfall on Tuesday.

Laura, on the other hand, underwent rapid intensification, a hallmark of several recent major hurricanes. Rapid intensification is defined as a gain of 35 mph or more in wind speed over 24 hours. In Laura’s case, the storm went from below hurricane strength with 65 mph winds early Tuesday to its current Category 3 strength on Wednesday, with winds between 111 and 129 mph. And forecasters expect it will intensify further.

The storm’s landfall comes amid an unusually active hurricane season, one that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted back in May.

For Gulf Coast residents, Laura is stirring eerie echoes of past storms. Hurricane Harvey in 2017 swept over Texas at Category 4 strength and inundated Houston with a gargantuan amount of rain that left the city soaked for weeks.

Laura is also making landfall around the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 storm that resulted in 1,200 deaths as it struck New Orleans. Both Harvey and Katrina are tied as the costliest storms on record. Laura is now the strongest August hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico since Katrina, Colorado State University meteorologist Phil Klotzbach told USA Today.

The destruction these storms caused was fueled by coastal development in vulnerable areas as well as climate change amplifying sea-level rise, and the damaging elements of extreme weather like heavy rainfall.

It’s likely Laura will also come with a high price tag. “I do expect this to be a multi-billion dollar disaster,” said meteorologist Jeff Masters on a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

Forecasts show that Laura’s current course takes the storm far inland to states like Arkansas before hooking east on Friday. Track the storm here.

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