Hurricane Laura was barreling towards the coast of the southern US states of Louisiana and Texas on Wednesday as a monster Category 4 storm, prompting warnings of "unsurvivable" storm surge and evacuation orders for hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents.
The Miami-based National Hurricane Center said Laura was expected to make landfall along the Gulf Coast late Wednesday or early Thursday.
Packing winds of 150 miles per hour (240 kilometers per hour), Laura had strengthened almost to Category 5, the highest on the Saffir-Simpson wind scale and defined as sustained winds of 157 miles per hour or higher.
If the storm remains this strong at landfall, it would be one of the 13 strongest storms ever to hit the US, although the NHC said that "rapid weakening is expected" after Laura moves inland.
The NHC said Laura may pummel the Louisiana and Texas coasts with "unsurvivable storm surge" of up to 20 feet (six meters) and extreme winds, causing flash flooding and "catastrophic damage."
It also warned that tornadoes could form at the storm's southern edges and added that "preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion."
Storm surges could penetrate up to 40 miles inland along parts of the coast, and peak surge coupled with high tide could see water as high as 15 to 20 feet above normal levels, it said.
Earlier, Texas Governor Greg Abbott warned that Laura's power was "unprecedented" and urged citizens to "get out of harm's way."
"Your property can be replaced," Abbott said. "Your life cannot be replaced."
Vice President Mike Pence, speaking on the third night of the Republican convention, urged people in the storm's path to "heed state and local authorities.
"My prayers are with you tonight. Our administration is working closely with authorities in the states that will be impacted," he said.
The National Guard announced it had mobilized more than 1,000 members in Texas to help with hurricane response, including 20 aircraft and more than 15 shelter teams.
Among the cities potentially in the path of the eye of the storm and under mandatory evacuation orders were Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas, which suffered heavy damage from Hurricane Harvey three years ago.
- 'Not going to play with the good lord' -
In the Texas town of La Porte, near Houston, residents were stocking up on essentials and a voluntary evacuation was in place.
"I'm a little nervous but then I'm also like, 'Okay, I know I'm going to be safe inside my apartment," Matthew Jones, 28, a security guard, told AFP. "I got bread. I got lunch meat, peanut butter, jelly, gallons of water, snacks."
Further east, in Port Arthur, a town near the border with Louisiana, Jannette Zinos was packing up her family to evacuate.
"We really need to leave. I'm just worried that the house will go down on us," she said.
Another evacuee in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Patricia Como, said other family members had stayed behind but she was "not going to take a chance."
"I'm not going to play with the good lord," Como said.
At 0200 GMT, Hurricane Laura was about 90 miles (145 kms) south of Lake Charles and moving north-west at 15 miles an hour, the NHC said.
It said the storm was expected to dump between five to 10 inches (13 to 26 cms) of rain on parts of the Gulf Coast between Wednesday and Friday.
Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards tweeted that portions of I-10, the interstate highway that connects all of the southern United States, were closed ahead of Laura's arrival.
He urged those evacuating to head northward in order to "detour the closure and avoid undrivable conditions."
Covid-19 loomed over preparations. Angela Jouett, director of evacuation operations in Lake Charles, said the authorities were ensuring that evacuees use hand sanitizer, get their temperatures taken and maintain a distance of six feet.
- Struck Haiti, Dominican Republican -
In New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the historic French Quarter was empty of tourists. Sandbags were piled up in front of the doorways of colonial-style buildings and windows were boarded up with plywood.
Laura earlier caused flooding in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, killing at least 25 people.
The Atlantic storm season, which runs through November, could be one of the busiest ever this year, with the NHC predicting as many as 25 named storms. Laura is the 12th so far.