Hurricane Laura barreled through southwest Louisiana, destroying buildings in the city of Lake Charles and killing a 14-year-old girl after making landfall early on Thursday as one of the most powerful storms to hit the state.
The hurricane's first reported U.S. fatality was a 14-year-old girl in Leesville, Louisiana, who died when a tree fell on her house, a spokeswoman for Governor John Bel Edwards said.
"We do expect that there could be more fatalities," the spokeswoman, Christina Stephens, said on Twitter.
Residents of Lake Charles heard Laura's winds howling and the sound of breaking glass as the storm passed through the city of 78,000 with winds of 85 miles per hour (137 km per hour) and gusts up to 128 mph (206 kph) in the hour after landfall.
The windows of the city's 22-floor Capital One Tower were blown out, street signs were toppled and pieces of wooden fence and debris from collapsed buildings lay scattered in the streets, video footage on Twitter and Snapchat showed.
Lake Charles resident Borden Wilson, a 33-year-old pediatrician, was anxiously anticipating his return home after evacuating to Minden, Louisiana.
"I never even boarded up my windows. I didn’t think to do that. This is the first hurricane I’ve experienced. I just hope my house is fine," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Laura made landfall just before 1 a.m. as a Category 4 storm packing winds of 150 mph (240 kph) in the small town of Cameron, Louisiana, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
It rapidly weakened to a Category 2 storm Thursday morning with maximum sustained winds of 100 mph (160 kph), and was forecast to become a tropical storm later in the day.
However, the NHC warned that the threat of a possibly deadly storm surge would continue along the Louisiana coast as Laura moved north and then northeast.
Cameron Parish, where Laura made landfall, has a population of just under 7,000 and is home to a national wildlife refuge. The marshland there is particularly vulnerable to a storm surge of ocean water.
"This is one of the strongest storms to impact that section of coastline," said David Roth, a National Weather Service forecaster. "We worry about that storm surge going so far inland there because it's basically all marshland north to Interstate 10. There is little to stop the water."
The storm surge, which the NHC on Wednesday predicted would be "unsurvivable," was still forecast to raise water levels up to 20 feet (6 meters) in parts of Cameron Parish on Thursday morning.
"This surge could penetrate up to 40 miles inland from the immediate coastline, and flood waters will not fully recede for several days after the storm," the NHC said on Thursday.
Besides threatening life, the storm slammed the heart of the U.S. oil industry, forcing oil rigs and refineries to shut down production.
The Port of Lake Charles remained closed as workers were unable to enter or exit the facility due to downed power lines and trees.
The port did not suffer significant flooding but power was out as of Thursday morning, manager of security and safety Ed Manint told Reuters. The harbor police were assessing the damage and would send a report to port administration, he said.
Texas mostly spared
Around 600,000 homes and businesses in Louisiana and Texas were without power early Thursday, and local utilities in the storm's path warned the outage numbers would climb as the storm marched inland.
The eastern coastal counties of Texas that had braced for the worst were largely spared Laura's rage. Galveston's acting mayor, Craig Brown, told MSNBC he was canceling the island city's evacuation on Thursday after the storm turned more toward Louisiana and was offering emergency support to communities hit harder to the east. Beaumont, Texas, Mayor Becky Ames told MSNBC the situation there was "manageable."
About 620,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders in Louisiana and Texas on Wednesday.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott said between 5,000 and 10,000 people had evacuated ahead of the storm in his state. The governor was planning to travel to east Texas to survey the damage on Thursday, his spokesman said.
Laura could spawn tornadoes on Thursday over Louisiana, Arkansas and western Mississippi, and was expected to drop 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) of rain over the region, the NHC said.
Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf told Fox News on Thursday the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had pre-positioned teams throughout Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia to respond.
"The next 48 hours are really going to be critical from a life safety standpoint," Wolf said.