Hurricane Laura is seen after it arrived on the Louisiana coast early Thursday as a Category 4 storm. Image courtesy NOAA/NHC
Aug. 27 (UPI) -- Laura slammed into the coast of Louisiana near Cameron early Thursday as a Category 4 hurricane, packing maximum sustained winds of 150 mph.
Not even 24 hours earlier, Laura rapidly intensified to a Category 3 hurricane, the first major hurricane of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. A short time later, the NOAA Hurricane Hunters found Laura had become an "extremely dangerous" Category 4 storm.
The National Hurricane Center said in a 4 a.m. advisory Thursday that Laura had weakened to a Category 2 storm over land.
AccuWeather meteorologists warned that complete destruction of mobile homes along with roof and wall failure is possible from Laura. Locations could be uninhabitable for weeks or months, and roads impassible from large debris.
Many bridges, causeways and access routes may become impassable as flood control systems and barriers may become stressed and fail. Major damage to marinas, docks, boardwalks and piers should be expected.
The National Hurricane Center warned that Laura may damage even well-built homes. Along with the common threat of the storm snapping or uprooting trees, the NHC also warned electricity and water may be unavailable for several days to weeks.
Laura's winds have already wrecked havoc on the power grid across the region. More than 137,000 customers were without electricity in Louisiana and there were 15,000 outages in southeast Texas early Thursday.
Numerous tornado warnings have been issued across the region, and AccuWeather meteorologists say the tornado dangers will continue as Laura moves inland.
Louisiana started to experience intense flooding on Wednesday morning near Louisiana State Route 1, among other areas, well before Laura made landfall.
"Unsurvivable storm surge with large and destructive waves will cause catastrophic damage," the NHC warned in an advisory Wednesday, adding that the surge could extend up to 40 miles inland from the coastline.
Storm surge is an above-normal rise in sea water along the coast that's generated by approaching or landfalling tropical systems, its strength and reach comparing more to a river than a tide.
AccuWeather forecasters predicted a storm surge of 15 to 20 feet near Cameron, Louisiana, a coastal town of about 135 miles east of Houston. The highest elevation in Cameron Parish is around 20 feet, meaning that the entire parish could be underwater during the worst of the storm.
"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," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said. "Moving water with wave action has the force of being in the middle of a large river. Waters will begin to rise and some coastal roads can become flooded will in advance of the center of the storm's arrival on the coast."
Tensions mounted during the week ahead of Laura's landfall as the storm strengthened along an eerily similar path taken by Hurricane Rita in 2005. The similarities stirred old wounds that local officials sought to address.
"This is not Harvey, this is not Imelda, this is not Allison. This is Laura," Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during a press conference. "Every storm is different, and we urge folks not to use any prior storm as a template for what or will happen. What we need to do is prepare for the worst."
The coronavirus pandemic has brought new challenges to hurricane preparation this season. To adapt to the dual danger of COVID-19 and hurricanes, the Center for Disease Prevention and Control has recommended preparing a "go kit" with items that that can help protect you and others from transmission of COVID-19, including hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and two masks for each person as social distancing may become more difficult.
The first mandatory evacuation order was issued Tuesday when the hurricane was still a Category 1 storm. Galveston Mayor Craig Brown signed a mandatory evacuation and the city urged residents to leave the island by noon Wednesday and to take with them "all family members and pets." City services were suspended at noon on Tuesday.
Elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, residents in Louisiana prepared for the storm by boarding up windows. 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, over half a million in Texas and Louisiana were told to flee the approaching storm.
A St. George Island first responder died while trying to save a swimmer, Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith reported over Facebook Live. He noted that it had been a "double-red-flag day," meaning no one should have been in the water to begin with.
"The conditions are terrible," Smith said. "There's a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, so I'm asking all the tourists don't go in the water. If you're in the water and you're told to leave and you don't, you will be arrested. We're serious about this. There's no reason for any other loss of life."
The identity of the first responder has yet to be made public.
Laura took its time its beginning stages of development before moving into the warm waters that would serve as a catalyst to its strengthening.
Laura first struck the Dominican Republic and Haiti before moving over Cuba by late Sunday, leaving behind damage and flooding while it pushed across the northern Caribbean as a tropical storm. It turned into a hurricane Tuesday.
Tropical Storm Marco preceded Laura, but fizzled out during the beginning of the week as it skirted along the Gulf Coast. However, this wasn't before it became the earliest "M" storm on record in the basin and unleashed torrential rainfall on the region. The previous "M" storm record was held by the 2005 Hurricane Maria, which developed Sept. 2.
Prior to Laura and Marco's formation, Cristobal, Edouard, Fay, Gonzalo, Hanna, Isaias, Josephine and Kyle had all set new records for their respective letters in 2020.