LAKE CHARLES, La. (Ben Caxton) — One of the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the U.S. pounded the Gulf Coast with wind and rain Thursday as Laura roared ashore in Louisiana near the Texas border, unleashing a fearsome wall of seawater and killing at least one person.
Louisiana took the brunt of the damage when the Category 4 system barreled over Lake Charles, an industrial and casino city of 80,000 people. Laura’s powerful gusts blew out windows in tall buildings and tossed around glass and debris. Police spotted a floating casino that came unmoored and hit a bridge.
Drone video showed water surrounding homes with much of their roofs peeled away. Gov. John Bel Edwards reported Louisiana’s first fatality — a 14-year-old girl who died when a tree fell on her home in Leesville, more than 100 miles inland.
The hurricane’s top wind speed of 150 mph (241 kph) put it among the most powerful systems on record in the U.S.
“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. They were there yesterday, but now gone,” he said.
An apparent chemical fire broke out near Lake Charles, sending up plumes of smoke visible for miles. The source of the blaze was not immediately clear, but Edwards urged nearby residents to shelter in place and turn off air conditioners.
Hours after the system made landfall, initial reports offered hope that the destruction might be somewhat less than originally feared, but a full damage assessment could take days. Wind and rain blew too hard for authorities to check for survivors in some hard-hit places. Meanwhile, Laura began weakening as it churned toward Arkansas, which was under an unusual tropical storm warning.
Hundreds of thousands of people were ordered to evacuate ahead of the hurricane, but not everyone fled from the area, which was devastated by Hurricane Rita in 2005.
“There are some people still in town, and people are calling … but there ain’t no way to get to them,” Tony Guillory, president of the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, said over the phone from a Lake Charles government building that was shaking from the storm.