By REBECCA SANTANA and JEFF MARTIN
(AP) — More than half a million people were ordered to evacuate the Gulf Coast on Tuesday as Laura strengthened into a hurricane that forecasters said could slam Texas and Louisiana with ferocious winds, heavy flooding and the power to push seawater miles 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 as much as 13 feet (3.96 meters) of storm surge topped by waves could submerge whole communities.
The National Hurricane Center projected that Laura would draw energy from warm Gulf waters and become a Category 3 hurricane before making landfall late Wednesday or early Thursday, with winds of around 115 mph (185 kph).
“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,” National Hurricane Center Deputy Director Ed Rappaport said.
Ocean water was expected to push onto land along more than 450 miles of coast from Texas to Mississippi. Hurricane warnings were issued from San Luis Pass, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana, and storm surge warnings from the Port Arthur, Texas, flood protection system to the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Officials urged people to stay with relatives or in hotel rooms to avoid spreading the virus that causes COVID-19.
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.
The storm also imperiled a center of the U.S. energy industry. Oil refineries and liquefied natural gas plants dot the coastal region, and the government said workers were removed from more than 40% of the 643 platforms that are normally staffed in the Gulf.
As of Tuesday morning, Laura was 585 miles (940 kilometers) southeast of Lake Charles, Louisiana, traveling northwest at 16 mph (26 kmh). Its peak winds were 75 mph (120 kph). The hurricane center nudged its forecast track a bit farther west as computer simulations pushed the storm closer to Texas.
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.