GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — In the largest U.S. evacuation of the pandemic, more than half a million people were ordered to flee the Gulf Coast on Tuesday as Laura strengthened into a hurricane that forecasters said could slam Texas and Louisiana with ferocious winds, heavy flooding and the power to push seawater miles inland.
More than 385,000 residents were told to flee the Texas cities of Beaumont, Galveston and Port Arthur, and another 200,000 were ordered to leave low-lying Calcasieu Parish in southwestern Louisiana, where forecasters said as much as 13 feet (3.96 meters) of storm surge topped by waves could submerge whole communities.
The National Hurricane Center projected that Laura would draw energy from warm Gulf waters and become a Category 3 hurricane before making landfall late Wednesday or early Thursday, with winds of around 115 mph (185 kph). The strengthening may slow or stop just before landfall, forecasters said.
“The waters are warm enough everywhere there to support a major hurricane, Category 3 or even higher. The waters are very warm where the storm is now and will be for the entire path up until the Gulf Coast,” National Hurricane Center Deputy Director Ed Rappaport said.
Ocean water was expected to push onto 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, and storm surge warnings from the Port Arthur, Texas, flood protection system to the mouth of the Mississippi River.
The evacuations could get even bigger if the storm’s track veers to the east or west, said Craig Fugate, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Officials urged people to stay with relatives or in hotel rooms to avoid spreading the virus that causes COVID-19. Buses were stocked with protective equipment and disinfectant, and they would carry fewer passengers to keep people apart, Texas officials said.
Whitney Frazier, 29, of Beaumont spent Tuesday morning trying to get transportation to a high school where she could board a bus to leave the area.
“Especially with everything with COVID going on already on top of a mandatory evacuation, it’s very stressful,” Frazier said.
The storm also imperiled a center of the U.S. energy industry. Oil refineries and liquefied natural gas plants that dot the region could shut down along the coast, and the government said workers were removed from more than 40% of the 643 platforms that are normally staffed in the Gulf.
While oil prices often spike before a major storm as production slows, consumers are unlikely to see big price changes because the pandemic decimated demand for fuel.