CAMERON PARISH, Louisiana — One of the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the U.S. pounded the Gulf Coast with wind and rain Thursday as Laura roared ashore in Louisiana near the Texas border, killing four people including a teenage girl and triggering a chemical fire.
The powerful storm struck land as a Category 4 near Cameron Parish on the southwest Louisiana coast about 1 a.m. Nearly 11 hours later, Laura weakened to a tropical storm as flooding rainfall and damaging winds spread inland.
The National Hurricane Center then downgraded Laura to a tropical depression as the storm system crossed Arkansas on Thursday night.
RELATED CONTENT: Latest hurricane details from across the region
A large chemical fire billowed Thursday in the hurricane’s wake. It sent a dangerous chlorine gas cloud over Lake Charles hours after the eye of the hurricane passed directly over the Louisiana city.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said the plant was along Interstate 10 just west of the city, and he advised storm survivors to shelter in place – tweeting that people “in the Westlake/Moss Bluff/Sulphur area” should close their windows and doors and turn off their air conditioning units.
The burning BioLab plant manufactures trichloroisocyanuric acid, chlorinating granules and other chemicals used in such household cleaners as Comet bleach scrub and pool chlorine powder. Louisiana State Police worked with plant managers to try and contain the fire.
Edwards’ office said it knew of at least six storm-related deaths caused by Hurricane Laura. Among the fatalities was a 24-year-old man that died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator inside his home, a man who drowned aboard a sinking ship and a 14-year-old girl who died when a tree crashed onto her family’s mobile home.
The other three deaths were also the result of trees falling on homes, authorities said.
“It looks like 1,000 tornadoes went through here. It’s just destruction everywhere,” said Brett Geymann, who rode out the storm with three family members in Moss Bluff, near Lake Charles. He described Laura passing over his house with the roar of a jet engine around 2 a.m.
“There are houses that are totally gone. They were there yesterday, but now gone,” he said.
Edwards said storm surge was measured in the range of 9 feet to 12 feet — bad but far less than the 20 feet that had been forecast. He said that led him to hope there would be less water damage to homes close to the coast, but a full damage assessment could take days.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott credited the evacuations of thousands of people for preventing deaths in his state.
“We really dodged a bullet,” Abbott said at a midday news conference, adding it was a “miracle” his state appeared to have made it through with no loss of life due to the storm.
Police in Austin said a bystander was shot and killed after a fight broke out among 60 people who had fled the Gulf Coast from Laura. About 8,500 people were being served in Texas shelters.
Abbott indicated the hurricane’s storm surge hit the east Texas communities of Port Arthur, Beaumont and Orange “pretty hard” overnight as the eye of the hurricane moved north along the Texas-Louisiana state line.
He described seeing roofs sheared off buildings and uprooted trees following an aerial tour of the damage.
More than 875,000 people in Louisiana and Texas were without power on Thursday, according to the website PowerOutage.Us, which tracks utility reports.
President Donald Trump said he planned to visit Texas and Louisiana this weekend to personally survey the destruction caused by Laura.
Meantime, the hurricane center said the storm system was expected to continue moving on into the mid-Mississippi Valley on Friday before reaching the mid-Atlantic States on Saturday. It said the system would likely dump heavy rains in spots, raising the risk of flash floods.
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