LAFAYETTE, La. — More than 500,000 residents in Louisiana and Texas were urged to flee their homes on Wednesday as Hurricane Laura roared toward the Gulf Coast, fueling grave warnings that the storm would deliver a calamitous assault with powerful winds and a storm surge that meteorologists declared “unsurvivable.”
Laura intensified into a Category 4 hurricane as it churned through the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, growing into a monster of a storm that forecasters described as one of the worst to pound the region in decades. Officials warned that a vast stretch of the coast, reaching from central Louisiana to west of Galveston, Texas, could expect to be barraged by hurricane-level conditions.
The storm was projected to make landfall late Wednesday night or early Thursday, forecasters said, with wind gusts of about 150 miles per hour. Low-lying communities along the coast stood to be engulfed by a wall of water, reaching as high as 20 feet in some places, and the storm surge could push as far as 40 miles inland. Forecasters also warned of heavy rainfall and the likelihood of tornadoes.
“I’m asking people right now to pay attention to this storm, to get out of harm’s way,” Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana told residents during a briefing on Wednesday before adding that they had limited time to do so before the weather worsened to dangerous levels. “Understand, our state has not seen a storm surge like this in many, many decades. We haven’t seen wind speeds like we’re going to experience in a very, very long time.”
The sense of alarm intensified as the storm gained strength.
“I don’t know if it’s too late,” said the Rev. Joe Miller, who lives in Newton, Texas, a small inland town straddling the state line that is in Laura’s expected path. “We had planned to stay,” he added. “Now, I don’t know.”
Cassandra Duhon figured she did not have much of a choice. Her husband, who works on an oil rig, could not get home, and she did not want to endure the brunt of the storm alone with her 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter.
She would have to flee her home in Cameron Parish, which is directly in the sights of Hurricane Laura. The trouble, she said, was finding somewhere to go.
Mrs. Duhon tested positive for the coronavirus about a week before the hurricane prompted a mandatory evacuation for Cameron Parish, and when she began calling around for hotels that would be willing to take her, she struck out. She ultimately settled on taking a 16-hour drive to an extended family member’s home in Colorado.
“I just play it day by day, and that’s the best I can do for right now,” Mrs. Duhon said. “It’s really hard being without your spouse,” she added. “And to worry about where he’s at, too? I don’t know. What else can 2020 throw at us?”
As officials stressed the perils posed by the storm, they also pleaded with residents to maintain their vigilance with a coronavirus pandemic that had become no less of a threat.
“We’re still in this pandemic emergency,” Mr. Edwards told residents. When it comes to taking virus precautions, he said, “It’s more important now than ever before.”
Even outside of a pandemic, hurricanes can set in motion an interminable slog of discomfort and distress, particularly with the agonizing decisions about whether to evacuate. But in the grip of the coronavirus, it has become even more complicated.
Many living in Laura’s path, particularly those vulnerable to the virus or caring for older relatives, have found themselves weighing the risk of riding out the storm against that of potential exposure. Others simply do not have the means to escape, as their livelihoods were eviscerated as the economy cratered.
The worst of the storm is bound for a part of Louisiana that has also been hit hard with the virus, with officials noting that Cameron and Calcasieu Parishes, in the southwest corner of the state, have some of the state’s highest positivity rates for virus tests. On Wednesday, state health officials reported 846 new cases and 32 more deaths from the virus.
Emergency officials are trying to reroute families into hotel rooms instead of shelters wherever possible, and in shelters, organizers have had to put into place social distancing measures.
It has created new challenges for what can sometimes work like a well-oiled machine in communities where responding to hurricanes has become a matter of routine.
“Covid has thrown us a curveball,” said Tony Mancuso, the sheriff for Calcasieu Parish. But the storm itself “is not a curveball for us.”
“We know what we’re talking about,” he added. “We know from experience, we know from doing it time and time again what works and what doesn’t. What works is when people cooperate with us, so I’m hoping that people heed that.”
Mandatory evacuation orders were issued across a considerable stretch of the coast, with officials warning of the dangers that residents could face if they ignored them.
“Don’t dial 911, no one is going to answer — you’re on your own,” said Thurman Bartie, the mayor of Port Arthur, Texas, saying that he refused to endanger police officers and emergency workers by having them respond to calls during the storm. “Just know that it’s just you and God.”
The warnings grew more dire after the National Hurricane Center said that an “unsurvivable storm surge with large and destructive waves will cause catastrophic damage” along a section of the Gulf Coast.
“The word ‘unsurvivable’ is not one we like to use, and it’s not one I’ve used before,” said Benjamin Schott, the meteorologist in charge for the National Weather Service in New Orleans.
Officials said that Laura resembled Hurricane Rita in its intensity and projected path, and the 2005 storm, which caused an estimated $25.2 billion in damage, remains vivid for many even after 15 years.
“It was a night I will never forget,” said Amy L’Hoste, who rode out Rita in her grandparents’ home in Ragley, about 20 miles north of Lake Charles. “It was terrifying when it came through. I’ll never forget waking up the next morning, and it looked like a war zone.”
This time, she said she would be hunkering down on her own. “I go crabbing by myself, I go fishing by myself, I’ll go camping by myself — I have no problem with that,” said Ms. L’Hoste, who works in communications for the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury. “I’ll just add that to the list: Go through a hurricane.”
Some have been left exhausted by the seeming cascade of crises, including Tropical Storm Marco, which threated to make landfall this week as a hurricane before dissipating.
“I don’t know the appropriate way of saying it,” Sally Brockman, who works in marketing for a Lake Charles hospital, said from her car as she and her husband, George, were about to pull onto the highway. “When I saw we had two hurricanes, normally there’s a bit of butterflies, a bit of ‘Oh, gosh, what’s going to happen?’ But I truly didn’t have the energy for that,” she added, her voice flat. “Like, OK, we got to go? OK. Cool. Let’s go.”
About 1,500 evacuees from East Texas arrived in San Antonio on Wednesday afternoon, where the city provided hotel vouchers to limit the spread of the virus.
Daryin McInnis stayed put in Beaumont, Texas, during Hurricane Harvey, which hit the Texas and Louisiana coast in 2017. She said she saw women wading through water that reached up to their noses, holding their children above their heads.
Those memories were on her mind as Ms. McInnis, 27, decided that she and her 7-year-old daughter would leave, and do so with a head start, setting off for New Braunfels, 250 miles away, where they would stay her with fiancé.
“The aftermath was the scariest,” she said, recalling her experience after Harvey, the reason for her resolve to clear out as quickly as she could. “I didn’t want to wind up getting stuck.”
Rick Rojas reported from Lafayette, Chelsea Brasted from New Orleans and Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio from Boston. Reporting was contributed by James Dobbins from San Antonio, Christiaan Mader from Lafayette, Campbell Robertson from Pittsburgh, and Lucy Tompkins from New York.