At least 10 people are dead and many more are unaccounted for after a historic Category 4 hurricane struck Louisiana in the early hours of Thursday morning, ripping through coastal towns and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power.
“We have sustained a tremendous amount of damage,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday at a press conference. “Thousands and thousands of residents whose lives are upside down.”
On Friday, the governor reported that at least 10 people have been confirmed dead. Four, including a 14-year-old girl, were killed when trees blown over in the fierce gusts slammed into their homes. In Calcasieu Parish, a man drowned after his boat was caught in the storm. Five people died from carbon monoxide poisoning after running generators in confined of spaces, Edwards said.
He also said state officials were expecting to uncover more deaths in the coming days.
“This is the most powerful storm to ever make landfall in Louisiana and it is continuing to cause damage and life-threatening conditions including the loss of electricity,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do, but we are in better shape today than might have been the case.”
Despite the devastation, many officials and first responders expressed relief that the damage and death toll were not as catastrophic as they could have been, given that Hurricane Laura was the strongest storm ever recorded to hit Louisiana. Laura was more powerful than Katrina, which struck the state in 2005, decimating the levee systems and producing historic flooding largely around New Orleans. More than 1,800 people died.
Laura plowed through a part of the country that is already grappling with surging numbers of coronavirus cases. On Friday, Gov. John Bel Edwards described the coinciding disasters as a "very serious situation" that will make controlling the state's COVID-19 spread even more challenging.
The hurricane made landfall near Cameron, Louisiana, nearly demolishing the tiny coastal town tucked in the most southwest corner of the state, known as “the heel of the boot.” Home to about 7,000 people, the marshy parish is known for its wildlife refuges, saltwater fishing, and vacation spots, like Holly Beach. But by Thursday evening, it was hardly recognizable. Footage from aircrafts flying overhead showed battered roofs of homes and businesses among the floodwaters. Authorities and volunteer search and rescue groups were still unable to access much of the community due to surge flooding. Communication lines were still down.
But elsewhere, the damage was less severe than expected. Laura was initially forecast as a Category 4 hurricane with “unsurvivable” storm surges of up to 20 feet. Texas and Louisiana were bracing for substantial flooding to hit the low-lying towns along the coast. By early Thursday morning, surges hit a maximum of about 10 feet, and as the hurricane diminished to a tropical storm and moved inland, residents and state leaders were relieved to find that many homes and businesses were not submerged.
Still, large swaths of Louisiana suffered substantial damage. More than 860,000 people were without power Thursday night and first responders still had not made their way into some of the hardest-hit communities due to mangled pine trees blocking roads.
“This hit our rural areas really hard, ones that are mostly marsh and have no elevation or hard land saw a tremendous amount of storm surge and they were the first ones to get hit," Mike Steele, communications director for the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, told BuzzFeed News. "Farther up, it looks like a giant tornado buzzed up the side of the state. We might not have a full idea of how bad the damage is and what people are facing for a few days."
On Thursday, Edwards reported that most of the state experienced “powerful tropical storm winds,” which caused much of the destruction.
Residents who stayed behind shared videos and photos on social media of mangled cars strewn in bushes, snapped trees, homes whose windows and walls had been ripped off by howling winds, downed power lines, and overturned trailers.
In the days and hours before the storm bore down, authorities were scrambling to evacuate more than 500,000 people out of the rural Gulf communities, an evacuation made more complicated by the pandemic. The coronavirus severely limited county officials’ ability to house and transport residents in high-risk areas since grouping thousands of people together in large stadiums and high school gymnasiums could spread infection.
During past major storms like Harvey and Imelda, residents were able to show up last-minute at large venues close to their neighborhoods. This time, in many instances officials said people simply chose not to go.
Officials had ordered a half million people to evacuate, but only a small fraction used government shelters and hotel rooms.
According to the Red Cross, which has been working with state, county, and parish governments, more than10,000 people had checked into hotel rooms and socially distanced shelters as of Friday night.
Jefferson County, Texas, home to vulnerable, low-lying cities like Beaumont and Port Arthur, did not have any shelters set up because coronavirus made the “logistics impossible,” Allison Gertz, a county spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News.
Instead, 100 buses were dispatched to various hubs and then shuttled residents hours away to cities like Austin, Houston, and San Antonio.
But 40% of Jefferson County’s 250,000 residents chose to ride out the Category 4 hurricane in their homes.
“People are tired. They are tired here of hurricanes. A lot of people don’t have the financial stability or ability to go because of COVID, or they didn’t want to lose all their possessions and experience more strife during this time,” she said. “I have never experienced that in my career. We were super lucky because, had the storm gone 30 miles the other direction, it would have been catastrophic for us.”
On Wednesday night, dozens of Lake Charles residents shared their reasons for staying: a sick grandmother, no car, too many pets, faith, and the fear of losing everything they have. Many repeated the same reason: They just “could not afford to leave.”
Casino worker Nicole Edwards was one of them. The 41-year-old said she has made it through earthquakes in Alaska and tornadoes in Missouri. Faced with the reality of having to leave many of her 15 animals behind because they could not all fit in her tiny Toyota Celica, she chose to add a hurricane to the list.
“Way to pop the hurricane cherry with a Cat 4,” she told BuzzFeed News Wednesday night.
Thanks to a friend, Edwards was able to relocate to another neighborhood and post up with her two dogs and 13 cats. Huddled together with her friend and their pets, 17 in total, Edwards described the terrifying sounds of what she guessed were tree limbs and building materials banging against the house as the power went out.
“It was like a train was circling us all night,” she said.
Driving to check on her trailer the next morning was like navigating “through a war zone,” she said.
When she got there, she found the white, clapboard mobile home still standing, but uninhabitable. Her windows are gone, the ceiling is cracked and hanging, and the small rooms are filled with piles of debris.
She knows she is lucky to have come out unharmed, but said it’s hard to imagine living through what comes next.
“Putting my life back together seems like an impossible task right now,” she said. “It’s going to take a long time for everyone to rebuild and move on.”