Evacuation orders issued as Hurricane Laura aimed at Gulf Coast in U.S.

Thousands of people were ordered to leave the Texas and Louisiana coasts Tuesday as Laura strengthened into a hurricane that forecasters said could slam into land as a major storm with ferocious winds and deadly flooding.

At least 23 dead so far in Laura's wake, storm could make landfall in U.S. on Wednesday night

Evacuees walk to board a bus Tuesday in Galveston, Texas. With Hurricane Laura heading toward the Gulf Coast, they will be transported inland to Austin, the state capital. (David J. Phillip/The Associated Press)

More than half a million people were ordered to leave the Gulf Coast on Tuesday as Laura strengthened into a hurricane that forecasters said could slam into Texas and Louisiana with ferocious winds, heavy flooding and the power to push seawater kilometres inland.

More than 385,000 residents were told to flee the Texas cities of Beaumont, Galveston and Port Arthur, and another 200,000 were ordered to leave low-lying Calcasieu Parish in southwestern Louisiana, where forecasters said more than 3.96 metres of storm surge topped by waves could submerge entire towns.

Forecasters said ocean water could push onto land along a more than 725-kilometre-long stretch of coast from Texas to Mississippi, and hurricane warnings will be issued later as the storm nears.

The National Hurricane Center projected that Laura will become a Category 3 hurricane before landfall, with winds of around 185 km/h, capable of devastating damage.

"The main point is that we're going to have a significant hurricane make landfall late Wednesday or early Thursday," National Hurricane Center Deputy Director Ed Rappaport said Tuesday.

WATCH | U.S. Air Force Hurricane Hunter flies through Hurricane Laura:

The South Carolina-based Hercules aircraft regularly flies risky missions into storms to gather meteorological data. 1:25

"The waters are warm enough everywhere there to support a major hurricane, Category 3 or even higher. The waters are very warm where the storm is now and will be for the entire path up until the Gulf Coast," Rappaport said.

As of 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Laura was 700 kilometres southeast of Lake Charles, La., travelling northwest at 28 km/h. Its peak winds were 140 km/h.

There was little to keep Laura from turbocharging. Nearly all forecasts showed rapid strengthening at some point in the next couple of days.

Whitney Frazier, 29, of Beaumont spent Tuesday morning trying to get transportation to a high school where she could board a bus to leave the area.

"Especially with everything with COVID going on already on top of a mandatory evacuation, it's very stressful," Frazier said.

'We're going to roll with the punches'

Laura passed Cuba 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. The deaths reportedly included a 10-year-old girl whose home was hit by a tree and a mother and young son crushed by a collapsing wall.

Forecasters turned their attention to the Gulf Coast, where up to 3.4 metres of sea water — storm surge — could inundate the coastline from High Island in Texas to Morgan City, La., the hurricane centre said.

Hurricane Laura has spread dramatically across the Gulf of Mexico since Tuesday, and continues to travel northwest along the coast near the Texas and Louisiana border. (CBC News)

"We're talking about something that's on the order of 10 feet and that's going to penetrate well inland," Rappaport said.

On top of that, up to 38 centimetres of rain could fall in some spots in Louisiana, according to Donald Jones, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Lake Charles.

"Whatever happens, happens. We're going to roll with the punches," said Capt. Brad Boudreaux, who operates a fishing guide service in Hackberry, La., near the Texas border.

Cesar Reyes, right, carries a sheet of plywood as he and Robert Aparicio install window coverings on a storefront in Galveston, Texas, on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. ( Jennifer Reynolds/The Galveston County Daily News/AP)

Coastal residents caught a break as the storm Marco weakened into a remnant just off Louisiana's shore on Tuesday. Satellite images showed a disorganized cluster of clouds, which Jones said meteorologists call "a naked swirl." 

The crew of a hurricane hunter plane confirmed that Laura became a hurricane with top winds of 120 km/h shortly after passing between the western tip of Cuba and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

The hurricane center warned people not to focus on the details of the official forecast, however, since "storm surge, wind, and rainfall hazards will extend well away from Laura's centre along the Gulf Coast."

WATCH | Tropical Storm Laura leaves trail of destruction in Dominican Republic:

The storm has claimed lives and caused massive damage, and is now headed towards the southern U.S. 1:02

Coronavirus adds new challenge for shelters

Workers were being evacuated from production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico in anticipation of Laura's arrival, reducing offshore oil and gas production to less than one-fifth the normal activity. The U.S. Interior Department said Monday that 281 platforms had been evacuated by around midday. That's nearly half of those that normally have workers on site.

The department estimated that 82 per cent of oil production and 57 per cent of natural gas production in the Gulf has been shut down. The oil production cut was at a level comparable to 2005's devastating Hurricane Katrina.

Waves splash at the seafront Malecon during the passage of Laura in Havana, Cuba, on Monday. Laura became a hurricane with top winds of 120 km/h shortly after passing between the western tip of Cuba and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

In Galveston and Port Arthur, Texas, mandatory evacuation orders went into effect at 6 a.m. Tuesday. People planning on entering official shelters were told to bring just one bag of personal belongings each, and "have a mask" to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

"If you decide to stay, you're staying on your own," Port Arthur Mayor Thurman Bartie said.

Officials in Houston asked residents to prepare supplies in case they lose power for a few days or need to evacuate homes along the coast. Some in the area are still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey three years ago.

State emergencies were declared in Louisiana and Mississippi, and shelters opened with cots set farther apart, among other measures designed to curb infections.

WATCH | Hurricane Laura as seen from space:

NASA releases video of Hurricane Laura captured by astronauts on the International Space Station. 0:56

Laura's unwelcome arrival comes just days before the Aug. 29 anniversary of Katrina, which breached the levees in New Orleans, flattened much of the Mississippi coast and killed as many as 1,800 people in 2005.

In Waveland, Miss., a coastal town devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Jeremy Burke said "our biggest threat down here is the storm surge." When Katrina struck, "the wind did do damage, but the thing that put the nail in the coffin was the storm surge," said Burke, who owns Bay Books in nearby Bay St. Louis.

Many residents in Waveland are staying in place as Laura bears down on the coast, but they also have their cars and trucks gassed up in case the forecast grows more ominous, Burke said.

"People are prepared to possibly go at the drop of a hat," he said. "We never take a storm for granted."