Hundreds of thousands flee US coast ahead of Hurricane Laura

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Tiara Walker holds her dog, Buece, as she waits with her family to board a bus to evacuate Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, in Galveston, Texas. The evacuees are being taken to Austin, Texas, as Hurricane Laura heads toward the Gulf Coast. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

NEW ORLEANS – 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 (4 meters) of storm surge topped by waves could submerge whole communities.

Forecasters Tuesday night expected the storm to increase in strength by 33%, from 90 mph (144 kmh) to 120 mph (193 kmh) in just 24 hours. They project Laura to strike the coast as a major Category 3 hurricane. 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.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said Laura is shaping up to look a lot like Hurricane Rita did 15 years ago when it ravaged southwest Louisiana.

“We’re going to have significant flooding in places that don’t normally see it,” he said.

Ocean water was expected to push onto land along more than 450 miles (724 kilometers) 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.