Aug. 25 (UPI) -- Authorities ordered more than 500,000 people in coastal Texas and Louisiana to evacuate before Hurricane Laura makes landfall.
Tropical Storm Laura strengthened into a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico Tuesday, and it is expected to make landfall as a Category 3 storm or stronger in eastern Texas or western Louisiana late Wednesday or early Thursday, forecasters said.
Officials in both areas of potential impact have ordered more than 500,000 people to evacuate.
"Today is the day," Galveston, Texas, Mayor Pro Tem Craig Brown told The Weather Channel Tuesday. "This is the day for everybody to get their belongings together and, for the safety of themselves and their family, to go ahead and evacuate today. Do not wait."
The coastal city issued a mandatory evacuation order Tuesday morning, and surrounding Galveston County issued a voluntary evacuation for the Bolivar peninsula, saying it's possible the area could be cut off from emergency services due to the storm.
"Those with medical conditions and the elderly are strongly encouraged to make their evacuation now," Galveston County's Office of Emergency Management tweeted.
Officials in Houston and Harris County, Texas, have urged residents to stay off roads to make more room for people evacuating.
The Harris County Toll Road Authority announced Tuesday morning it has waived fees.
Also, in Texas, Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick ordered a mandatory evacuation for all of the county Tuesday. Workers at medical care facilities and nursing homes were among the essential workers exempt from the evacuation order.
In Orange County, Texas, which has a population of about 83,000 and sits on the Louisiana border, officials have also issued an evacuation order.
In Louisiana, Gov. Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency Friday night and requested a federal emergency declaration Saturday for both Laura and then-Tropical Storm Marco, which President Donald Trump approved.
Tropical Storm Marco weakened considerably before it landed late Monday.
"Laura has always been the greater threat to Louisiana," Edwards told The Weather Channel. "We don't want people to become complacent because we caught a break with Marco."
The Louisiana National Guard has been working to shore up a damaged gulf-side levee with giant bags of sand on Grand Isle that Tropical Storm Cristobal ripped apart in June.
Louisiana has the highest rate per 100,000 of COVID-19 cases across the country, and the pandemic has further complicated the evacuation process.
"Frankly, there's not many places for people to go to," Dick Gremilion, director of homeland security and emergency preparedness for Louisiana's Calcasieu Parish, told The Weather Channel. "In our traditional shelters, we've lost two-thirds of capacity. It has been a difficult time rolling COVID into hurricane preparations."