Updated at 2:10 p.m. ET
Hurricane Laura is swirling in the Gulf of Mexico and is projected to hit the Texas and Louisiana coasts Wednesday night as a major hurricane, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Forecasters project that some coastal areas near the Texas-Louisiana border could see “unsurvivable” storm surge, which could impact areas up to 30 miles inland.
Laura is now a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 140 mph. It is projected to remain a Category 4 through landfall Wednesday night. The eye of the storm is forecast to move across northwestern Louisiana on Thursday, across Arkansas on Thursday night and into the mid-Mississippi Valley on Friday.
In a video update posted on Facebook on Wednesday morning, NHC Director Ken Graham said things are “changing rapidly here, but what’s not changing is the fact that this is going to be a catastrophic life-threatening event.”
Laura is expected to rapidly weaken after it makes landfall Wednesday night into Thursday morning, but the projected storm surge could still cause the most life-threatening damage, the hurricane center said.
If peak surge occurs during high tide, the water along Johnson Bayou to Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge on the Louisiana coast could rise between 15 and 20 feet. Other nearby areas could see storm surge as high as 15 feet.
“Surge-related flooding depends on the relative timing of the surge and the tidal cycle, and can vary greatly over short distances,” the NHC said.
Earlier this week, some residents in Laura’s path faced Tropical Storm Marco, which dumped a lot of rain but weakened considerably as it approached the coast. Laura is expected to be much more powerful than that storm. Warm waters in the Gulf are aiding Laura’s rapid growth.
Storm surge and tropical storm-force winds will arrive ahead of Laura’s center later Wednesday night, the NHC said. That means that if people delay evacuating, the roads could already be flooded.
“Clock is ticking,” Graham said. “If you’re told to leave, it’s time now to evacuate these areas.”
In the lowest-lying areas along Louisiana’s coast, roads were beginning to flood as of Wednesday afternoon, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a news conference.
“The storm surge flooding is starting now in Louisiana,” he said. “It’s well ahead of the storm. It will just get worse over the next day or so.”
More than 200,000 people in the low-lying Calcasieu and Cameron parishes of southwestern Louisiana were placed under a mandatory evacuation order. By midafternoon Wednesday, it won’t be safe to drive in those areas, Edwards said.
“If you’re in those low-lying areas, if your local officials have told you that there’s an evacuation in place, whether it’s mandatory or voluntary, we need you evacuating now,” he said.
Laura’s storm surge is expected to reach levels not seen in Louisiana since Hurricane Audrey in 1957, Edwards said.
In Lake Charles, which is part of Calcasieu Parish, Mayor Nic Hunter told member station WWNO that he was concerned that not all residents were heeding those orders.
“I will be brutally honest,” he said, “we are very concerned that not enough people are evacuating.”
In Texas, around 400,000 people in Galveston, Beaumont and Port Arthur have been placed under mandatory evacuation orders.
Despite these warnings, some residents said they are going to stay behind, Florian Martin of Houston Public Media reported. Others said they are taking measures to prepare their homes using storm shutters and generators.
Walter Rowe of Galveston said he has lived in the area his entire life, and he only evacuated for Hurricane Ike in 2008. He told Martin he wasn’t sure whether he would leave this time.
“I’m not worried, that’s kind of what happens down here,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic is complicating efforts to safely shelter evacuees, who are being directed to hotels instead of typically crowded shelters. An intake center in Austin, Texas, began turning away evacuees on Wednesday morning when it ran out of hotel rooms, KUVE reported.
Hunter said he suspects the coronavirus pandemic and economic hardship are leading many people to take pause. He said people who are staying behind will likely have to wait hours for first responders to reach them.
“As soon as winds get above 40 mph, it is just absolutely unsafe to have vehicles out on the road,” Hunter said. “So if people are staying, there is going to be an extended period of time, at least four to six hours, where public safety, law enforcement will not be able to respond to you.”