Weather Alert

Laura explodes into Category 4 hurricane packing 145-mph winds

Courtney Spamer, AccuWeather meteorologist

The storm had continued to intensify on Wednesday, after exploding into the first major hurricane of the 2020 Atlantic season in the morning. Laura is an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm, packing maximum sustained winds of 150 mph. The eye of Laura was about 120 miles south of Lake Charles, Louisiana, at 7:00 p.m. CDT Wednesday, moving northwestward at 15 mph.

Forecasters expect Laura to make landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border as a Category 4 hurricane, but it could even reach Category 5 strength (wind speeds of 157 mph or greater) for a time as it moves over bath warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Whether or not the hurricane reaches Category 5 status may depend on if the eye undergoes structural changes.

The storm is rated a 4 on the AccuWeather RealImpact Scale for Hurricanes, a new method the company introduced in 2019 to better assess the overall potential damage a storm could cause than the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which only factors in wind impacts.

Hurricane Laura approaching the Gulf Coast on Wednesday evening. (NOAA/GOES-East)

Along with the half million-plus residential evacuations, the looming Laura worry has also forced the evacuation of livestock. AccuWeather National Reporter Jonathan Petramala spoke with ranchers in southwestern Louisiana who have had to urgently gather cattle and move them to higher ground with the devastating memory of Hurricane Rita from 15 years ago still lingering.

The hurricane has the potential to cause catastrophic damage and widespread power outages in southwestern Louisiana and along the upper Texas coast, but significant damage and power outages well inland. Roads may be impassable and the power could be out for days, or even weeks, after the storm. The coastline could be changed forever and some neighborhoods may be unrecognizable after the storm.

As a result of the forecast, hurricane warnings were in effect for places along the Gulf Coast from San Luis Pass, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana.

Some neighborhoods could sustain catastrophic damage due to powerful winds combined with storm surge flooding and wave action on top of the storm surge. A portion of Interstate 10 could be closed due to high water.

The coastal inundation from the storm surge around Cameron, Louisiana, a coastal town about 135 miles east of Houston, Texas, and 195 miles west of New Orleans, is forecast to be between 15 and 20 feet. A storm surge of that magnitude, combined with wave action, would be high enough to fully devastate the second story of structures located along the coast. Moving water with wave action has the same force of being in the middle of a large river. Waters will rise and some coastal roads can become flooded well in advance of the center of the storm’s arrival on the coast.

“The greatest threat to lives and property from Laura will be due to storm-surge flooding,” AccuWeather’s top hurricane expert, Dan Kottlowski, said.

Storm-surge flooding can occur as far to the the east as coastal Mississippi and as far to the southwest as Galveston, a barrier island city in Texas located less than 50 miles southeast of Houston.

Near and just east of where the eye of Laura makes landfall, there is the potential that the storm surge could penetrate 40 miles inland from the immediate coastline.

The National Hurricane Center is referring to the storm surge as being unsurvivable from Sea Rim State Park, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana, including Calcasieu and Sabine Lakes.

Other major cities that could sustain major damage from Laura include Port Arthur, Texas, and Lake Charles, Louisiana.

The impact from Laura could exceed Hurricane Rita, which was a larger storm, in 2005. However, Laura not only continued to get stronger but also gained size during Wednesday.

Rita was the last major hurricane to hit near the border of Louisiana and Texas and produced a maximum storm surge of 18 feet. Hurricane Ike in 2008 hit farther south on Galveston Island, Texas, as a Category 2 storm.

AccuWeather estimates the total damage and economic loss caused by Laura will be $25-30 billion. The estimate is based on an analysis incorporating independent methods to evaluate all direct and indirect impacts of the storm and is based on a variety of sources, statistics, and unique techniques AccuWeather uses to estimate damage.

At this time, AccuWeather meteorologists believe Laura will make landfall between midnight and 3 a.m. CDT Thursday, perhaps just on the Louisiana side of the Louisiana and Texas border.

Meteorologists are urging all residents are to pay attention to evacuation orders from local officials. Time is running out for people along the coast to evacuate as waters and wind gusts will be on the rise through Wednesday night.

The first mandatory evacuation order was issued Tuesday ahead of the storm’s arrival. Galveston Mayor Craig Brown signed a mandatory evacuation Tuesday as Laura barreled toward the Texas coastline. The mandatory evacuation went into effect at 6 a.m. local time on Tuesday, and the city has urged residents to leave the island by noon Wednesday and to take with them “all family members and pets.”

Elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, residents in Louisiana prepared for the storm by boarding up windows. In Cameron, Louisiana, residents were seen evacuating on Monday. Oil refineries across the Gulf were shut down amid all of the tropical activity over the Gulf — first from Marco and later from Laura. All told, nearly 600,000 in Texas and Louisiana were told to flee the approaching storm.

“Another concern, high on our list as a significant threat, is from tornadoes,” Kottlowski said.

The tornado risk will increase just prior to landfall and remain a significant threat perhaps up to 48 hours after landfall near and east of the track of the center of the storm, mainly over the lower Mississippi Valley.

Laura left behind damage and flooding while it pushed across the northern Caribbean as a tropical storm. At least 23 deaths have been blamed on Laura.

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Conditions are expected to steadily deteriorate across the central and western portions of the Louisiana coast and the upper Texas coast on Wednesday with downpours, increasing winds and building water levels.

Damaging winds will reach the central Gulf Coast at midweek, with wind gusts of 100-120 mph near where Laura makes landfall with an AccuWeather Local StormMax™ wind gust of 140 mph.

“These winds can cause power outages and damage to structures and trees,” AccuWeather Meteorologist Brett Rossio said.

Trees that are sitting in soil that has already been saturated by Marco will be more susceptible to being toppled in Laura’s fierce winds.

“Even with a glancing blow in Houston, winds could approach hurricane-force over the high buildings in the downtown area with the likelihood of power outages and property damage down below,” Kottlowski said. “Impact could be greater in the Houston area if the storm shifts it’s track farther to the west.”

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) warned on Wednesday morning that people could be without power and water for days and weeks after Laura’s blow.

In addition to wind, Laura will also bring life-threatening flooding from rainfall.

“Rainfall from Laura may fall across the same places that received tremendous rainfall from Marco, further exacerbating the flooding situation along the Gulf coast,” Rossio said.

The combination of Marco’s heavy rain from the western Florida Panhandle to central Louisiana and another round of tropical downpours from Laura could make some areas more susceptible than usual to flooding.

From Laura alone, the highest rainfall totals of 4-8 inches with an AccuWeather Local StormMax™ of 12 inches will be most likely in southern Louisiana.

As is typically the case with a land-falling tropical system, tornadoes will be possible north and east of the center of the storm. In addition, the Louisiana coastline is likely to take another battering with rough surf, beach erosion and significant coastal flooding from storm surge.

Laura is likely to still pack a punch in terms of wind and rain as it tracks through the Mississippi and Ohio valleys late in the week. Enough rain can fall in these areas to produce flash flooding, and wind damage and isolated tornadoes will still be possible.

There is even a chance Laura regains tropical storm status, if the circulation center survives the trip over the Appalachians and then wanders off the mid-Atlantic coast late this weekend.

Laura first developed in the Atlantic just a couple of hundred miles east-southeast of the northern Leeward Islands on Friday morning, shattering the record for the earliest “L”-named storm on record in the basin. The previous “L” storm record was held by Luis, which formed on Aug. 29, 1995.

Prior to Laura’s formation, Cristobal, Edouard, Fay, Gonzalo, Hanna, Isaias, Josephine and Kyle had all set new records for their designated letters in 2020.

AccuWeather meteorologists expect a hyperactive peak hurricane season, which is now underway, and like the notorious 2005 season, Greek letters may be needed beyond the designated list of names for the 2020 season. AccuWeather meteorologists are calling for up to 24 tropical storms, 11 of which could strengthen into hurricanes, this season.

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