There is also the threat of flash floods and tornadoes further inland, with the potential for the storm to maintain hurricane strength as it pushes north toward Shreveport, La.
City and county officials in Texas and Louisiana have issued evacuation orders affecting about 500,000 residents, particularly those living in low-lying areas. In Texas, thousands of emergency workers, including the National Guard, were poised to spring into action with boats, aircraft and other equipment when the storm hits. President Trump said his administration had been in contact with state officials.
“There will be a lot of devastation wrecked upon Texas as the storm sweeps through,” Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas said during a briefing on Tuesday.
The geography of the region offers little buffer to the approaching storm surge.
The city of Lake Charles, right in the path of Hurricane Laura, sits some 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. But this does not mean it is safe from an “unsurvivable surge” expected to march in front of the storm.
Between the city and the coast lies mostly treeless marshland, which, most dangerously, is cut through with shipping channels that lead directly in from the Gulf. Given a storm surge predicted to be as high as 20 feet, these channels “provide conduits like a hose going in,” said Paul Kemp, a professor of coastal sciences at Louisiana State University.
The place expected to take the first direct hit, coastal Cameron Parish, has been repeatedly devastated by hurricanes, Rita and Ike most recently. A wide swathe of marsh and farmland, it has a faction of the population it once had.
The vulnerability has gotten worse over time. For decades, saltwater has steadily crept inland all along the coast, through these shipping channels and coastal erosion, turning freshwater lakes — including Lake Charles itself — into a brackish coastal inlets and killing trees that once offered protection from big storms.