Laura Rapidly Intensified Over a Super-Warm Gulf. Only the Storm Surge Faltered

The season’s most intense hurricane hit the swampy coast between Houston and New Orleans and raced north. It could end up a “zombie” storm off the Northeast coast.

Aug 28, 2020
A street is seen strewn with debris and downed power lines after Hurricane Laura passed through the area on August 27, 2020 in Lake Charles, Louisiana . The hurricane hit with powerful winds causing extensive damage to the city.

A street is seen strewn with debris and downed power lines after Hurricane Laura passed through the area on August 27, 2020 in Lake Charles, Louisiana . The hurricane hit with powerful winds causing extensive damage to the city. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

An Atlantic storm season on a record pace delivered a body blow to southwest Louisiana as Hurricane Laura roared ashore early Thursday as a Category 4 storm, the most powerful to hit Louisiana in 150 years.

Laura will likely cause billions of dollars in damage, but the season's fourth hurricane avoided major population centers by making landfall between New Orleans and Houston. A last-minute wobble to the east reduced storm surge and flooding in cities like Lake Charles, Louisiana and Port Arthur, Texas. 

The hurricane slammed into the swampy coast near the Louisiana-Texas state line at 1 a.m. with 150 mile-per-hour winds and a predicted storm surge as high as a two-story building that the National Weather Service had described as "unsurvivable."  Preliminary reports from the National Hurricane Center put the actual surge at about half that, which is still substantial but far from the worst-case that had been feared.

Still, at least four people died in storm-related accidents, authorities said.

Laura packed a bigger punch than Hurricane Rita did 15 years ago. Rita left seven dead, caused $12 billion in damage, and prompted one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history, at 2 million people, as it followed a similar path across the region. 

Laura was more powerful, too, than Hurricane Katrina, also 15 years ago, which devastated New Orleans after the city's levees broke and became a potent national symbol for failing infrastructure, inadequate emergency management capabilities, environmental injustice and a callous federal response that left well over a thousand people dead.

After making landfall, Laura raced inland toward northern Louisiana at about 15 miles an hour instead of parking itself over land and dumping overwhelming rain, as recent hurricanes like Harvey did over Houston and southeast Texas in 2017, and Florence did over coastal North Carolina in 2018.

"We did not sustain and suffer the absolutely catastrophic damage we thought was likely, based on the forecast we had last night," Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards told reporters Thursday afternoon. "But we have sustained tremendous damage. We have thousands upon thousands of citizens whose lives have been turned upside down."

When the eye of the storm shifted a bit to the east before making landfall after midnight it no longer passed directly over a waterway known as the Calcasieu Ship Channel, connecting the Gulf to Lake Charles, which reduced the storm surge, the governor said.

The National Weather Service showed a daily rain total of up to 10  inches in Lake Charles, and isolated storm totals of 15 to 18 inches across southwest Louisiana.

"Whatever the reason is, we are very thankful," Edwards said.  "But just about the entire state saw tropical storm force winds. That is how big and powerful this storm was."

Laura Struck a Gulf Coast Oil, Gas and Petrochemical Hub 

The governor said he was aware of four deaths in the state, all a result of trees falling on victims'  homes. Search and rescue operations continued throughout Thursday. Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in Louisiana and Texas were without power. 

As authorities began to survey the damage, early reports showed trees and power lines down, damaged homes and businesses, shattered glass on office buildings and a dangerous chemical plant fire, even as Laura continued north through Louisiana with hurricane-force winds. 

Arkansas braced for heavy rains and flash flooding from a storm that was expected to also dump rain across Kentucky and West Virginia before heading back into the Atlantic Ocean off the Northeast coast, where scientists said it could, like a zombie, become a tropical storm again this weekend.

Late last week, weather forecasts said there was the potential for a rare double-punch, with tropical storms Laura and Marco both headed toward the Gulf coast. Marco became a hurricane but fizzled out after confronting a powerful wind shear as it made landfall, while Laura lagged behind and gathered strength. 

Likely made more dangerous by climate change, Laura struck at a hub of the nation's oil, gas and petrochemical industry as it rapidly went from a tropical storm to a near-Category 5 hurricane in a day.

On its path to Louisiana, over super-warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico that scientists say intensify hurricanes, Laura spun through a vast network of off-shore oil rigs. In all, there were evacuations and shut downs of about 300 off-shore drilling platforms, nearly half of 643 staffed platforms in the gulf, according to the Department of Interior's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

Then the hurricane slammed into a coast known for its liquified natural gas export terminals, tank farms, refineries and other industrial plants.

Of particular concern was Port Arthur, Texas, home to the nation's largest refinery, which was shut down by its owner, Motiva, ahead of Laura's arrival, and Lake Charles, Louisiana, where other petrochemical facilities had been shut down as a precaution.

Port Arthur escaped with only a glancing blow. The city manager, in a local news account, reported no extensive damage and no flooding and told residents on Thursday they can come back home. 

But in the Lake Charles area, state officials told residents they needed to shelter in place due to a chemical fire at a BioLab Inc. plant that makes chlorine for swimming pools. It sent toxic smoke billowing into the sky.

Edwards advised residents to shut their doors and windows and avoid air conditioning, if they were lucky enough to have power from the local utility or from a generator, despite the hot, muggy conditions of an August in coastal Louisiana.

The plume of smoke from the BioLab plant contained chlorine gas, a deadly chemical, but the public should not be worried because it was blowing over and falling into a lake, where it was rendered harmless, state officials at the governor's press conference said. They said they were monitoring the air as emergency crews worked to put out the fire.

Something clearly went wrong at the BioLab plant, said Eric Smith, a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans and associate director of its energy institute. Other damage could still be discovered, but overall, he said, the oil and gas infrastructure, which is designed to withstand winds of at least 130 miles per hour, appeared to have remained intact.

"We dodged the bullet on Marco," Smith said. "We got winged, with no fatal injury with Laura."

Climate Change Helps Make Storms Stronger and Wetter

So far, this hurricane season has been one for the record books, even before Laura, said Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane expert and research scientist at Colorado State University's Department of Atmospheric Science.

And the busiest part of the hurricane season begins in September when half of all tropical storm activity on average occurs, he said.

So far there have been 13 named storms, the most for this early in the year, he said.

This season, every major forecasting organization predicted above-average activity, due to a warm Atlantic Ocean and favorable atmospheric conditions. 

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists, for example, predicted 13 to 19 named storms, including six to 10 hurricanes and three to six major hurricanes that had wind speeds of 111 miles per hour or more. A normal season would have 12 named storms with six hurricanes, three of which would be major storms.

CSU experts had predicted 24 named storms from June 1 through November, including 12 hurricanes. There have been four hurricanes, one major, with weather and ocean conditions still looking favorable for more, Klotzbach said.

Scientists won't be able to say exactly what kind of effect global warming had on Laura until they do an attribution study that finds the links. As recently as the last major global climate assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change in 2014, those links were still tenuous.

But Princeton University climate scientist Gabriel Vecchi said that science has evolved rapidly in the last few years, with attribution studies finding that global warming is increasing the odds of the strongest storms and also making them wetter.

"The one consensus there seems to be, and it is growing, is that the storms that do happen should be both wetter and stronger and the peak winds of the storms should be more intense," he said. "But there is still a lot of uncertainty about how global warming will affect the frequency, regionally and globally." 

Laura's rapid intensification in the 24 hours before landfall, he said, "is something that is projected to be more likely with global warming, and something we can see in observations from the last few decades." 

Sea level rise also makes storm surge more dangerous.

Vecchi said he suspects Laura would have been a weaker storm over a cooler ocean. 

But the oceans are not getting cooler. They are warming fast, and research shows that increases the risk of intense rains and flooding from tropical storms, typhoons and hurricanes, said Peter Pfleiderer, a researcher with Climate Analytics.

That could also put entirely new areas at risk, including parts of northwestern Europe, he said. 

"From the technical side, there is nothing to prevent tropical storms from going to Ireland if sea surface temperatures are warm enough," he said. 

A Recovery Made More Complex by Covid-19 

Authorities took extra precautions with Laura because of the coronavirus by putting evacuees in hotels or motels instead of large shelters where people could easily spread Covid-19. People will also have to be careful as the region rebuilds, Edwards said.

"During a Covid environment, we want people to be as safe as possible," he said.

Recovery will be a challenge, said Samantha L. Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, who is familiar with the region.

There are a lot of low-income people in the region, and people are hurt, additionally, by the coronavirus recession, she said.

"The national media attention related to this story is not going to last more than a couple of days," because of the region's remote location, and that could hurt efforts to raise recovery funds, she said.

Louisiana is among the nation's poorest states, raising concerns about environmental justice, said Ilona Otto, a climate and sustainability researcher with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the University of Graz in Austria.

The increasing intensity and frequency of hurricanes and tropical storms, she said, may lead some political leaders and climate activists to start thinking about making the fossil fuel companies whose products cause global warming pay for some of the costs of the rebuilding, instead of leaving that burden on the backs of communities that can't afford it.

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