Steve August 26, 2020

Hurricane Laura strengthened to a category 3 storm with winds of 115 mph on Wednesday morning and was expected to intensify further before making landfall along the Texas and Louisiana border overnight.

Here’s the latest:

  • Hurricane Laura intensified to a category 3 storm on Wednesday morning and may strengthen further to a category 4 by landfall.
  • It is expected to make landfall around the Texas and Louisiana border on the Gulf Coast overnight.
  • More than 500,000 people in those states have been ordered to evacuate.
  • Devastation from the storm could spread far inland.
  • Flooding is a concern, with over 6 million people under flash flood watches.

The rapidly intensifying storm is expected to inflict damage before and long after it makes landfall, and not just along the Gulf Coast. On Wednesday morning, Laura was about 280 miles from the coast and moving at 15 mph.

The National Weather Service said devastation could spread far inland in eastern Texas and western Louisiana.

“Steps to protect life and property should be rushed to completion in the next few hours,” the weather service warned at 8 a.m. ET.

In what is now the largest evacuation in the U.S. since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, more than half a million people have been ordered to flee.

More than 385,000 residents were told to evacuate from the Texas cities of Beaumont, Galveston and Port Arthur. About 60 counties in the state were under a disaster declaration Wednesday.

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Another 200,000 people were ordered to leave low-lying Calcasieu Parish and parts of Cameron Parish in southwestern Louisiana.

“Cameron Parish is going to be part of the Gulf of Mexico for a couple of days based on this forecast track,” said Donald Jones, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

A fear of getting sick with the coronavirus may make some people hesitant to go to shelters.

“Hopefully it’s not that threatening to people, to lives, because people are hesitant to go anywhere due to COVID,” resident Robert Duffy said as he placed sandbags around his home in Morgan City, Louisiana. “Nobody wants to sleep on a gym floor with 200 other people. It’s kind of hard to do social distancing.”

Fearing that some residents might not want to evacuate, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said those in southwest Louisiana need to reach wherever they intend to ride out the storm by noon Wednesday.

But some other officials strongly urged people to leave.

“If you decide to stay, you’re staying on your own,” Mayor Thurman Bartie of Port Arthur, Texas, said. “Don’t dial 911. No one’s going to answer, and you are on your own.”

On Wednesday morning, Laura’s hurricane-force winds were extending outward up to 70 miles, and its tropical-storm-force winds up to 175 miles, the weather service said. The harshest conditions are expected between 8 p.m. Wednesday and 6 a.m. Thursday.

Widespread power outages could last for weeks, forecasters said.

Flooding is also a concern with more than 6 million people under flash flood watches from Louisiana to Arkansas on Wednesday.

A life-threatening storm surge is forecast to occur with #Laura. The water could reach the following heights above ground somewhere in the indicated areas. This storm surge could penetrate up to 30 miles inland from the immediate coastline in SW Louisiana and far SE Texas.

— National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic) August 26, 2020

Parts of the northwestern Gulf Coast from western Louisiana to far-eastern Texas could see 15 inches of rain on top of a 10 to 15 foot storm surge that could reach 30 miles inland.

“Some areas when they wake up Thursday morning, they’re not going to believe what happened,” Stacy Stewart, a senior hurricane specialist at the hurricane center, said Wednesday. “What doesn’t get blown down by the wind could easily get knocked down by the rising ocean waters pushing well inland.”

“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 National Weather Service said. “The deepest water will occur along the immediate coast near and to the right of the landfall location, where the surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves.”

A buoy located near Laura clocked a wave height of 37 feet Wednesday morning, alarming forecasters.

Tornados could also present a problem across southeast Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and western Mississippi Wednesday and Thursday.

Laura comes days before the Aug. 29 anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which breached the levees in New Orleans, flattened much of the Mississippi coast and killed as many as 1,800 people in 2005.

But meteorologists said Laura more closely resembles Hurricane Rita, which made landfall about a month later with a storm surge that reached 20 to 30 miles inland.

Elisha Fieldstadt

Elisha Fieldstadt is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.

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