Aug. 26 (UPI) -- Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards called on residents in the path of Hurricane Laura to evacuate as soon as possible Wednesday as the Category 4 storm took aim at the Gulf Coast.
Forecasters expect the major hurricane to make landfall somewhere along the coast of western Louisiana or eastern Texas on Wednesday night.
Edwards warned residents during a midday news conference that meteorologists are expecting "unsurvivable" storm surges of up to 20 feet.
"In my five years as governor, I don't think I've ever had a press conference where I'm trying to convey the sense of urgency I'm trying to convey right now," he said.
Officials in Louisiana have ordered evacuations in parts of or the entire parishes of Calcasieu, Cameron, Jefferson, Lafourche, Plaquemines, St. Mary, Terrebonne and Vermilion. Thousands also evacuated in the Texas Counties of Chambers, Galveston, Hardin, Jasper, Jefferson, Newton, Orange and Tyler.
National Weather Service meteorologist Ben Schott warned that in addition to storm surge, Laura will pack 145 mph sustained winds.
"A lot of structures are going to be leveled," he said. "Trees in large swaths are going to be down. Power lines down. There are going to be neighborhoods ... that are going to be unrecognizable.
Laura grew into a Category 4 hurricane on Wednesday midday as was expected to main its status as a major hurricane when it makes landfall. .
In southeast Texas, Hardin County Judge Wayne McDaniel urged residents to evacuate as quickly as possible.
"If you are still here, there's still time to leave and you must do so now," he said in a Facebook post early Wednesday.
Beaumont residents were able to evacuate by bus before service stopped mid-Wednesday morning. In Houston, the METRO transit agency said it planned to suspend all operations Wednesday afternoon.
"METRO vehicles are not designed to operate safely in sustained high winds," the transit agency said. "Additionally, local officials are recommending residents leave roads clear. METRO's services will resume gradually when it is safe to do so."
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued shelter-in-place orders on Tuesday ahead of the storm. Hidalgo also issued a voluntary evacuation order for coastal areas bordering Galveston Bay.
"We are looking at the potential surge above the ground on the east side of Harris County," she said. "A worst case, but certainly possible scenario, would mean potentially devastating surge along our coastal area."
Hospitals across the region braced for the first major hurricane to arrive in the midst of a pandemic.
"All of our facilities are ready for floods and high winds so I think we're in as good shape as we can be when these things come close to the coast," Memorial Hermann System President and CEO Dr. David Callender told KUHT-TV.
He said the hospital system will try to discharge as many patients as possible before Laura arrives.
Houston meteorologist Eric Berger said the city is now outside the storm's direct path, but should still see some wind and rain.