Galveston, Texas: Hurricane Laura was expected to cause catastrophic damage and "unsurvivable storm surge" to the Gulf Coast near the Texas and Louisiana border after strengthening to a Category 4 storm, the National Hurricane Centre said.
Laura, located 320 kilometres south-southeast of Port Arthur, Texas, on Wednesday afternoon, had maximum sustained winds of 220km/h and was expected to pack winds of up to 233km/h before making landfall on Wednesday night, the Miami-based forecaster said.
A satellite image released by NASA shows Hurricane Laura churning in the Gulf of Mexico.Credit:NASA
Some 620,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders in Louisiana and Texas.
The catastrophic storm surge could penetrate up to 48 kilometres inland from the coastline between Sea Rim State Park, Texas, and Intracoastal City, Louisiana and could raise water levels as high as six metres in parts of Cameron Parish, Louisiana, the NHC said.
"To think that there would be a wall of water over two storeys 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. Most of Louisiana's Cameron Parish would be under water at some point, Schott added.
"The word 'unsurvivable' is not one that we like to use, and it's one that I've never used before," Schott said of the storm surge.
Temporary housing was being hastily erected outside the storm surge zone for evacuated residents, and emergency teams were being strategically positioned, state and federal emergency management agencies said.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Pete Gaynor posted pictures of portable shelters on Tuesday at Camp Beauregard, Louisiana, about 185km north of the Gulf Coast.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott said his state's National Guard was in place with high-water vehicles and rescue helicopters.
While Houston had earlier in the week feared Laura would deliver a direct hit to the fourth-largest US city, the storm has shifted east and Houston, which was devastated by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, looked likely to escape the worst of it.
Louisiana Governor John Edwards said that the state's entire National Guard had been activated for the first time since 2012.
More than 420,000 Texas residents and another 200,000 people in neighbouring Louisiana were under mandatory evacuation orders.
Sarah and Brad Cooksey were filling up their RV at a petrol station in Katy, Texas along their evacuation route from low-lying Port Arthur to a campground in Columbus.
"We'll see what we come back to," Brad Cooksey said. "Nothing we can do about it."
Skies were dark, a light rain was falling and the surf was strong on Wednesday morning in the island city of Galveston, which was mostly boarded up.
The Shark Shack Beach Bar and Grill is boarded up on Strand Street in Galveston.Credit:AP
Randall Gilmore, a 48-year-old maintenance worker, was riding his bike along the city's sea wall before he planned to evacuate to nearby Texas City in the afternoon.
"This storm doesn't look like it'll be bad so far, but I feel it's better to leave. You never know what to expect with these storms," Gilmore said.
The storm was also expected to spawn tornadoes on Wednesday night over Louisiana, far south-eastern Texas and south-western Mississippi, the NHC said. It added there would likely be widespread flooding from far eastern Texas across Louisiana and Arkansas from Wednesday to Thursday.
Crude oil production in the Gulf of Mexico has been paralysed as companies batten down operations. Output cuts are nearing 90 per cent, a level not seen since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Landfall during pandemic
Hidalgo County urged voluntary evacuation in the coastal region surrounding Houston, and shelters were set up in San Antonio, Dallas and Austin. Thousands of evacuees would be sheltered at hotels in Austin, instead of schools, to encourage social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, the Austin American-Statesman reported.
Jared Brown, 39, was heading to a friend's house in Austin from his home in Lake Charles, Louisiana on Wednesday. He had decided that would be safer from viral exposure than a hotel, where he normally would have taken shelter.
"Luckily he didn't mind," Brown said of his friend.
Lina Hidalgo, the top executive for Harris County, which encompasses Houston, signed a disaster declaration for the county on Wednesday.
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