Hurricane Laura was state’s most powerful storm but not as destructive as it could have been

‘We have a lot to be thankful for,’ Gov. Edwards said

By: - August 27, 2020 6:47 pm

In this file photo from August 2020, Latasha Myles and Howard Anderson stand in their living room where they were sitting when the roof blew off around 2:30am as Hurricane Laura passed through the Lake Charles, Louisiana, area. The bad weather, Monday, May 17, 2021, including tornadoes and flood, hit the same area. (Photo by Joe Raedle /Getty Images)

Gov. John Bel Edwards described Hurricane Laura — which came ashore in Cameron Parish with 150-mile-per hour winds near 1 a.m. Thursday — as “the most powerful storm to ever make landfall in Louisiana.”  Even so, a storm surge that was not as high as predicted and a death toll that, as of Thursday afternoon, was in the low single digits, had Edward expressing relief that the Category 4 storm wasn’t as devastating as it could have been.

“We did not sustain…the absolute catastrophic damage we thought was likely,” Edwards said. That didn’t mean, he emphasized, that Laura didn’t cause substantial damage.  However, he said, “We’re in better shape today than might have been the case. So we have a lot to be thankful for.”

Laura spent half of a day tearing through the state as a hurricane.  At his press conference, which began at 1 p.m., Gov. Edwards said the center of the storm was between Shreveport and Ruston and had just then been downgraded to a tropical storm.  Even so, he said, then, “It’s still a powerful storm.”

On Wednesday, as Hurricane Laura approached the Gulf coast, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service predicted that it would overwhelm Cameron Parish with a wall of water two stories high.  But the actual wall of water was about half as high because, the governor said, the hurricane moved “just slightly east of what had been forecast.”

That shift meant that water was not pushed into the Calcasieu Ship Channel, a passageway connecting the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Charles, the governor said.

Edwards said, “Nine to twelve feet is still a lot of storm surge, but it was not the 20 feet we were told.”

The storm did cause some major problems in and around Lake Charles.  The Isle of Capri riverboat casino broke away from its dock and got lodged beneath the Calcasieu River Bridge, a part of Interstate 10. Shawn Wilson, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation, said that Interstate 10 had been shut down and that the bridge — which the federal government had already concluded is “structurally deficient” wouldn’t be reopened until an investigation determined it was safe for motorists.

Also during the hurricane, a chemical fire broke out at the BioLab plant in Westlake.  Unspecified hurricane damage caused the plant’s chlorine products to leak and ignite, said Louisiana State Police Col. Kevin Reeves.  An unknown amount of chlorine gas was released into the air, Reeves said.

At that mid-day press conference, Edwards reported a total of four fatalities, all of whom had died when a tree fell on their house.  The people killed lived in Vernon, Jackson and Acadia parishes, locations a significant distance away from where the storm came ashore.

Thursday evening the Louisiana Department of Health said two more fatalities had been added to the state’s death toll for a total of six.

Edwards also reported 600,000 power outages, a number he said might continue to climb.  Some of those power outages had left many Louisianians without drinking water.  In a press release, the Louisiana Department of Health said Thursday morning that 67 public water systems were inoperable after Hurricane Laura.

Power crews had been instructed to prioritize restoring power to hospitals and water systems, he said.

Edwards said that there were 2,100 people who’d left their homes and were being provided shelter: 1,900 in hotel and motel rooms and the rest in Red Cross shelters. He said a state contract would allow to place another 800 people in hotel rooms, “and if we need to do more than that, we will find the space.”

The state is emphasizing hotel rooms over large shelters to avoid having evacuations increase the spread of COVID-19.  As powerful and as dangerous as Laura was, Edwards said, it had killed far fewer people than COVID-19. Since Wednesday, COVID-19 had killed 23 compared to the six storm fatalities.

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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, former editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.