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Laura becomes a major hurricane before landfall, with Louisiana and Texas threatened with flooding even well inland

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(CNN) — Hurricane Laura has reached Category 3 strength over the Gulf of Mexico, hours before it is expected to strike Louisiana and southeastern Texas with what forecasters fear will be ruinous flooding and wind damage — even well inland.

Laura was moving over the Gulf on Wednesday morning with maximum sustained winds of 115 mph, and it may strengthen to a Category 4 sometime before making landfall near the Texas-Louisiana state line late Wednesday or early Thursday, forecasters say.

Storm power and low-lying geography could combine for devastating results: Storm surges could reach up to 15 feet and overwhelm coasts. And surges several feet high could reach nearly to Interstate 10 in Louisiana, endangering cities like Lake Charles, some 35 miles inland, forecasters say.

“Catastrophic, life-threatening,” National Hurricane Director Ken Graham told CNN on Wednesday morning about the storm’s potential.

“Every little bayou, every little river that normally drains your rain, is going to flow in the opposite direction with storm surge,” he said. “And it (will get) out of those banks and (go) over the land.”

Even when Laura was just at a tropical storm moving over the Caribbean, it killed at least nine people. And with the Gulf Coast facing the storm next, officials are racing to prepare.

The American Red Cross has put relief supplies and 700 workers in the area, the group said.

About 1.5 million people are under some type of evacuation order across parts of Texas and Louisiana.

The Houston area — especially eastern Harris County — also could receive damaging winds. Road tolls there have been waived to help people leaving the area, Gov. Greg Abbott said.

A hurricane warning extends from the Galveston area — as well as parts of Harris County just east of Houston — to Intracoastal City, Louisiana, south of Lafayette.

Houston itself is under a tropical storm warning, meaning strong winds — up to 73 mph — are expected.

“Trees will come down. Power lines will come down … especially in the eastern part of Houston proper,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.

Shelters in Texas have been preparing for two threats — stocking personal protective equipment, preparing for social distancing measures and making testing available for coronavirus while the state prepares for Hurricane Laura, Abbott said in a news conference.

Storm surges, damaging winds and tornadoes are among the threats

Laura may fluctuate in intensity Wednesday, but is expected to make landfall late Wednesday or early Thursday near the Texas-Louisiana state line as a Category 3 or higher, the National Hurricane Center said.

Destructive winds will be one of the big problems. A Category 3 landfall would mean winds above 110 mph near the storm’s center — strong enough to damage well-built homes and knock out power for days.

But the storm’s eyewall isn’t the only place to watch. “Hurricane-force winds … are also expected to spread well inland into portions of eastern Texas and western Louisiana,” the National Hurricane Center said.

Even before landfall, winds of tropical-storm force — 39 mph and greater — should reach the area of the Texas-Louisiana state line, perhaps by 2 p.m. CT, Myers said.

“After that, you can’t do anything, You can’t put boards up. You need to prep now, or get out now, if you are … from probably Sabine Pass (the Texas-Louisiana state line) and off to the east,” Myers said.

The National Hurricane Center says Laura’s threats include storm surges of:

• 10 to 15 feet from Texas’ Sea Rim State Park to Louisiana’s Intracoastal City

• 8 to 12 feet from Intracoastal City, Louisiana, to Morgan City, Louisiana

• 6 to 9 feet from Port Bolivar, Texas, to Sea Rim State Park, Texas

• 4 to 7 feet from Morgan City, Louisiana, to the mouth of the Mississippi River.

From Wednesday through Friday, Laura is expected to produce rainfall of 5 to 10 inches, with isolated maximum amounts of 15 inches, across parts of northwestern Gulf Coast.

Over the lower to middle Mississippi Valley, 2 to 4 inches of rainfall with isolated totals of 6 inches are expected, the National Hurricane Center said.

A few tornadoes also are expected Wednesday night from far southeast Texas to Louisiana and Mississippi, the hurricane center said.

Laura’s impending arrival comes as the Gulf Coast avoided a powerful storm in Marco, which significantly weakened before reaching the US.

3 years after Harvey

Texas evacuations Tuesday fell on the third anniversary of Hurricane Harvey hitting Texas.

Abbott noted that there were more evacuations announced than before Hurricane Harvey struck.

Houston is the largest city in the region. It is particularly vulnerable to flooding and could see big impacts from Laura. The concrete-filled city has notoriously poor drainage systems and a propensity to flood, such as during the overwhelming rainfall from Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Mandatory evacuations in Jasper and Hardin Counties fall just north of Beaumont, Texas, which was hard-hit during Harvey.

Deaths in the Caribbean

At least nine people have died in the Caribbean, including several in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, due to Laura.

The victims include a 7-year-old boy who died along with his mother after a wall collapsed in their home in the Dominican Republic. Another person died after a tree fell on a house.

Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader said an army corporal was killed while helping with rescue efforts in Pedernales province.

Five people were killed in Haiti, including a 10-year-old girl, the country’s civil protection agency said.

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