Hurricane Laura, after unleashing extensive damage in Louisiana, is now moving eastward as a tropical depression through Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama as forecasters warn of more dangerous weather over the weekend.
The hurricane left property damage, a hazardous chemical fire and at least six people dead in Louisiana on Thursday before moving north later in the night through Arkansas. Though the extent of the storm’s destruction is not clear, Louisiana and Texas officials signaled that the damage is less catastrophic than anticipated.
Packing 150 mph wind, Laura was the most powerful hurricane to strike Louisiana, surpassing even Katrina, a Category 3 storm that devastated the state in 2005.
The day before Laura tore through Louisiana, authorities issued dire warnings that prompted more than a half-million people to evacuate in both states.
Despite Laura hitting the land with such force, its forecast storm surge — expected to be “unsurvivable” at up to 20 feet high — ended up being about half as high in Louisiana. Forecasters said this was due in part to the storm moving quickly.
“It is clear that we did not sustain and suffer the absolute catastrophic damage that we thought was likely based on the forecast that we had last night,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday afternoon. “But we have sustained a tremendous amount of damage. We have thousands and thousands of our fellow citizens whose lives are upside down.”
New tornado warnings were issued for Mississippi and Arkansas. Forecasters warned that Laura could reenergize and threaten several Northeast states by Saturday.
Areas in Louisiana and Texas are estimated to have suffered $8 billion to $12 billion in insured losses from Laura’s surge and high wind, but with residential and commercial property damages less than $500 million. The storm’s center struck more sparsely populated areas in the states, according to global property data and analytics provider CoreLogic.
“There is never a good place for a hurricane to make landfall. But this was the best possible outcome because it spared the major population centers of Houston and New Orleans,” said Curtis McDonald, CoreLogic meteorologist and senior product manager.
President Donald Trump plans to visit the Gulf Coast over the weekend to tour the destruction.
Damage is seen from Hurricane Laura August 27, 2020 in Grand Lake, Louisiana. Hurricane Laura came ashore bringing rain and high winds to the southeast region of the state, reaching wind speeds of 150 mph and a 9-12 feet storm surge.
Eric Thayer | Getty Images
The environmental damage
Hurricanes are becoming more frequent and destructive because of climate change, and the storm drew fresh attention to the dozens of petrochemical plants and hazardous sites in Louisiana that were in Laura’s path. It renewed fears about the potential for environmental damage and stoked health concerns.
Laura moved through major industrial areas in Louisiana and Texas, including the Lake Charles area, which has major chemical plants, and Port Authur Texas, home to North America’s largest oil refinery.
The fire at the chemical plant BioLab, which manufactures chemicals used in household cleaners and chlorine for pools, released chlorine gas into the air on Thursday and prompted the governor to order people to shelter in place and turn off air conditioning. The fire was extinguished Thursday night.
In the U.S., people who live the closest to major industrial zones that threaten to release toxic chemicals during storms tend to be poor and communities of color.
“A climate-fueled storm causes a chemical plant fire which spews more emissions which fuels more climate change,” climate journalist Emily Atkin said in a tweet about the plant fire. “Our environmental crises fuel each other.”
When Hurricane Harvey struck Texas and Louisiana in 2017, it caused catastrophic flooding that inundated chemical plants and oil refineries and released deadly carcinogens into Houston neighborhoods. Now, some communities in Houston have experienced higher levels of childhood leukemia because of the higher concentration of chemicals in the air.
Laura was the seventh named storm to hit the U.S. this year, setting a record for U.S. landfalls before the end of August. The Atlantic hurricane season, on track to be the worst ever in part because of warmer ocean waters, is not over.
The season, which officially runs until the end of November, is expected to bring nine to 25 named storms to the U.S., with seven to 11 of those storms developing into hurricanes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
An abandoned car sits in standing after Hurricane Laura made landfall along the Texas-Louisiana border near Lake Charles, Louisiana on August 27, 2020.
Callaghan OHare | The Washington Post via Getty Images