Hurricane Laura, now a Category 4 storm, is barreling towards the coasts of Louisiana and Texas with winds of 140 miles per hour and the threat of an “unsurvivable” storm surge with large and destructive waves that “will cause catastrophic damage,” according to the National Hurricane Center.
Laura’s storm surge could reach as high as 15 to 20 feet in some areas and travel as far as 30 miles inland. The storm may also bring flash flooding and tornadoes on land.
“The water is already coming up,” said National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham warned on Wednesday. “If you’re told to leave, you need to do it now because what happens is the water comes in early and you start cutting off your evacuation routes.”
Storm surge is water level rise caused by hurricane winds and low pressure pushing water onto shore, and is made worse when hitting a coastal area during high tide. Depending on when the storm strikes, Laura could coincide with high tide.
A Category 4 hurricane brings especially strong winds of between 130 and 156 miles per hour that make storm surge worse and more destructive.
Flooding has started
The topography of south Louisiana, which is in the direct path of Laura, is especially vulnerable to a strong surge. Much of the land between the coast and the city of Lake Charles is marshland and there are networks of rivers and lakes that run into the Gulf of Mexico.
A strong storm surge will push all that water inland, exacerbating flooding and damaging properties. According to the NHC, the storm surge will arrive ahead of Laura’s center late Wednesday, which means if people delay evacuating, the roads could already be inundated.
“The storm surge flooding is starting now in Louisiana,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “It’s well ahead of the storm. It will just get worse over the next day or so.”
People board buses at the Port Arthur Civic Center to evacuate the city ahead of Hurricane Laura on August 26, 2020 in Port Arthur, Texas.
Eric Thayer | Getty Images
The surge could reach up to 30 miles inland from the coastline between Sea Rim State Park, Texas, and Intracoastal City, Louisiana and could raise water levels as high as 20 feet in parts of Cameron Parish, Louisiana, according to the NHC.
Forecasters said the surge will likely reach Interstate 10, a primary route between south Louisiana and southeastern Texas that was inundated during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
“To think that there would be a wall of water over two stories high coming on shore is very difficult for most to conceive, but that is what is going to happen,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Benjamin Schott at a news conference.
“The word ‘unsurvivable’ is not one that we like to use, and it’s one that I’ve never used before,” Schott said.
The NHC warned on Wednesday morning that “only a few hours remain to protect life and property” as Laura makes its way toward the coasts of Texas and Louisiana.
Climate change has resulted in hotter atmospheric and ocean temperatures as well as sea level rise, which combined have driven more intense and rapidly developing hurricanes with more dangerous surges.
This year’s hurricane season is on track to become one of the worst in recorded history as sea surface temperatures continue to rise in the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, according to forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center.
Demeteri Bushnell is hugged by her great niece as they and other evacuees prepare to board a bus as they are evacuated by local and state government officials before the arrival of Hurricane Laura on August 26, 2020 in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images