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Laura brings destruction, death to Gulf Coast, quickly moves inland

Hurricane Laura made landfall early on Thursday in southwestern Louisiana near the Texas border. It remained a hurricane for several hours before being downgraded early Thursday afternoon to a tropical storm with a continued threat inland of significant rain and tornadoes in some areas.

Lake Charles area, battered by historic winds, also dealing with effects of industrial fire

"I'm just glad that we are all alive," said Nico Jones of Lake Charles, La., a city walloped by the Category 4 storm. 1:35

Hurricane Laura pounded the Gulf Coast for hours with ferocious wind, torrential rains and rising seawater as it roared ashore over southwestern Louisiana near the Texas border early Thursday, threatening the lives of people who didn't heed evacuation orders.

Six people have died, Louisiana officials confirm, and more than 900,000 people were without power in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas.

Laura arrived as one of the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the U.S., a Category 4 storm with winds up to 240 kilometres per hour. Louisiana took the brunt of the damage when the system barrelled over Lake Charles, an industrial and casino city of 80,000 people, and nearby low-lying fishing communities. Powerful gusts blew out windows in tall buildings and tossed around glass and debris.

President Donald Trump, after receiving a briefing Thursday at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters, said he would visit Texas and Louisiana on Saturday or Sunday to survey the destruction.

"It looks like 1,000 tornadoes went through here. It's just destruction everywhere," said Brett Geymann, who rode out the storm with three family members in Moss Bluff, near Lake Charles. He described Laura passing over his house with the roar of a jet engine around 2 a.m.

"There are houses that are totally gone," he said. "They were there yesterday, but now gone."

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards reported the first fatality from the hurricane earlier Thursday, a 14-year-old girl who died when a tree fell on her home. A spokesperson with the governor's office said the girl lived in Leesville, La.

Three other fatalities also occurred from falling trees: a 51-year-old man from Jackson Parish, a 64-year-old woman from Allen Parish, and a 68-year-old man from Acadia Parish.

A 24-year-old male died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator inside his residence, said Mike Steele, communications director for the Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

In addition, a man, whose age is unknown, drowned while aboard a sinking ship.

Edwards also advised those who remained in Lake Charles to shelter in place due to a large chemical fire.

The fire, from a plant just outside of the city, was sending a dangerous cloud in the sky, with the governor advising residents in affected areas to close their windows and turn off their air conditioning units.

Smoke is seen rising from what was reported to be a fire at a chemical plant Thursday in Lake Charles, La., after Hurricane Laura passed through the area. The hurricane hit with powerful winds, causing extensive damage to the city. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Louisiana State Police confirmed that they were responding to a chlorine leak at the BioLab chemical manufacturing facility in Westlake, west of Lake Charles.

State and federal aircraft were heading into the air over the battered Louisiana coast Thursday, looking for signs of any other industrial damage from Laura.

There are no reports of anyone being sickened by releases from the burning site, the state's police major, Doug Cain, said.

BioLab's corporate parent said the plant had been shut down and evacuated ahead of the storm, and no plant employees were injured.

WATCH l Overnight scenes of ferocious wind, lightning:

The Category 4 storm dumped torrential rains and threatened the coast with a catastrophic storm surge. 0:58

The plant manufactures trichloroisocyanuric acid, chlorinating granules and other chemicals used in such household cleaners as Comet bleach scrub and pool chlorine powder.

Both trichloroisocyanuric acid and chlorine are potentially acutely toxic to people and animals if ingested or inhaled.

Laura remained a hurricane for several hours after landfall before it was downgraded early Thursday afternoon to a tropical storm.

More than 580,000 coastal residents were ordered to join the largest evacuation since the coronavirus pandemic began and many did, filling hotels and sleeping in cars since officials didn't want to open mass shelters and worsen the spread of COVID-19.

Flooding caused by Laura is shown in Sabine Pass, Texas. The storm made landfall in western Louisiana, but its effects could be felt in parts of southeast Texas. (Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

But in Cameron Parish, where Laura came ashore, officials said at least 150 people refused pleas to leave and had planned to weather the storm in everything from elevated homes to recreational vehicles. The result could be deadly since forecasters said the parish could be completely covered by ocean water.

"It's a very sad situation," said Ashley Buller, assistant director of emergency preparedness. "We did everything we could to encourage them to leave."

Cautious optimism 

The area where Laura made landfall is marshy and particularly vulnerable to the storm surge of ocean water.

"The word 'unsurvivable' is not one that we like to use, and it's one that I've never used before," National Weather Service meteorologist Benjamin Schott said of the storm surge.

Temporary housing was hastily organized outside the surge zone for evacuated residents, and emergency teams were being strategically positioned, state and federal emergency management agencies said.

Debris is seen near a business on Thursday in Lake Charles. (Gerald Herert/The Associated Press)

Both Edwards and Abbott said the initial indications were that the storm surge was not as bad as initially feared. Edwards told CNN and MSNBC that it was perhaps half of a pre-landfall warning of 6 metres, which would put it in line with several past hurricanes.

FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor also told ABC's Good Morning America that the surge turned out to be less than what was forecasted, but he expects significant wind damage to buildings once they do proper surveys of the disaster area.

But storm surge could spread up to 60 kilometres, officials said, and a full damage assessment could take days. Wind and rain blew too hard for authorities to check for survivors in some hard-hit places.

As of 5 p.m. ET Laura was generating maximum sustained winds of 80 km/h and was located 210 kilometres south-southwest of Little Rock, Ark. It was moving north-northeast at 24 km/h.

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      Forecasters expected Laura to cause widespread flash flooding in states far from the coast. After turning eastward and reaching the Atlantic Ocean, it could again become a tropical storm and threaten the Northeast.

      There was also the threat from the system of tornadoes on Thursday over Louisiana, Arkansas and southwestern Mississippi.

      A home damaged by the hurricane is seen in Lake Charles. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

      Laura hit the U.S. after killing nearly two dozen people on the island of Hispaniola, including 20 in Haiti and three in the Dominican Republic, where it knocked out power and caused intense flooding.

      Laura was the seventh named storm to strike the U.S. this year, setting a new record for U.S. landfalls by the end of August. The old record was six in 1886 and 1916, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.

      With files from Reuters

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