More than half a million people have been ordered to flee the US Gulf Coast as forecasters warn of “catastrophic damage” from Hurricane Laura and say a potentially deadly surge could penetrate 30 miles inland.
Authorities made the order after the storm strengthened into a hurricane, telling people in Texas and Louisiana that “actions to protect life and property should be rushed to completion this evening”.
Laura is expected to batter swathes of the two states with ferocious winds and heavy flooding.
Forecasters warned that as much as 13ft (3.96 metres) of storm surge topped by waves could submerge entire neighbourhoods.
More than 385,000 residents were told to flee the Texas cities of Beaumont, Galveston and Port Arthur, with another 200,000 ordered to leave low-lying Calcasieu Parish in southwestern Louisiana.
The National Weather Service said: “There is danger of life-threatening storm surge with large and dangerous waves producing potentially catastrophic damage from San Luis Pass, Texas, to the Mouth of the Mississippi River.
“This surge from Laura could penetrate up to 30 miles inland from the immediate coastline in southwestern Louisiana and far southeastern Texas.
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“Actions to protect life and property should be rushed to completion this evening, as water levels will begin to rise on Wednesday.”
The National Hurricane Centre projected that Laura would make landfall with winds of around 115mph (185kmh) after drawing energy from warm Gulf waters and becoming a Category 3 hurricane.
It said the strengthening may slow or stop just before landfall.
“The waters are warm enough everywhere there to support a major hurricane, Category 3 or even higher,” National Hurricane Centre deputy director Ed Rappaport said.
“The waters are very warm where the storm is now and will be for the entire path up until the Gulf Coast.”
Meteorologists warned ocean water was likely to push on to 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, with storm surge warnings from the Port Arthur, Texas, flood protection system to the mouth of the Mississippi River.
And Craig Fugate, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the evacuations could get even bigger if Hurricane Laura‘s track veers to the east or west.
Officials said people should stay with relatives or in hotel rooms to avoid spreading coronavirus.
In Texas, buses were stocked with protective equipment and disinfectant, and can carry fewer passengers to keep people apart.
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 triggered intense flooding.
Those killed included a 10-year-old girl whose home was hit by a tree and a mother and young son crushed by a collapsing wall.
It had been feared two hurricanes could be present in the US Gulf for the first time on record, before the other tropical cyclone – Storm Marco – weakened.