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Gulf Coast escapes storm surge, but hurricane winds cause extensive damage

Parts of Louisiana and Texas spent Thursday assessing damage from Hurricane Laura. Wreckage is spread for miles inland, more than 700,000 people have no power and at least four people have been killed. Outside the Louisiana city of Lake Charles, a giant plume of toxic smoke rose from a chemical plant that caught fire. Judy Woodruff talks to Tom Hoefer, communications director for Calcasieu Parish.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The people of Southwestern Louisiana have spent this day assessing the aftermath of Hurricane Laura.

    So far, they have counted at least four dead and wreckage spread for miles around the island. And more than 700,000 people in Louisiana and Texas have no power.

    It was projected to be an unsurvivable event. The actual damage wreaked by Hurricane Laura remains to be seen, but its strength was on full display last night. Laura made landfall in Louisiana's Cameron Parish, some 30 miles east of the Texas border. The storm blasted the Bayou State's southwest with Category 4 winds of up to 150 miles an hour and unrelenting rains.

    As the sun came up, the damage began coming into view. In Lake Charles, about 45 miles north, Laura ripped into buildings and inundated roads. Just outside the city, a giant plume of toxic smoke rose from a chemical plant that caught fire. Officials said they were working to contain a chlorine leak.

    And residents nearby were told to stay indoors, with air conditioners turned off.

    Governor John Bel Edwards acknowledged the damage, but said it could have been much worse.

  • Gov. John Bel Edwards:

    Whatever the reason is, we're very thankful, because there is widespread and very significant damage because of the winds, and some because of the rain. We're thankful we didn't get more storm surge than we did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meanwhile, in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott flew over the region to survey the damage.

  • Man:

    Whoa.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But while residents there woke up to some flooding…

  • Man:

    I should have worn my boots, huh?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … Texas was largely spared the worst.

  • Judge Mark Henry:

    We're very lucky, yes. In fact, last night, as the storm was coming ashore, the wind bands actually tightened up a little bit, so the 35-to-40-mile-an-hour winds we were predicting here in this location didn't actually occur.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In Port Arthur, Mike Hastings and a dozen other rescue volunteers met up to send resources to Louisiana.

  • Phillip Morrisett:

    We got one of our Humvees that went to go pick up a Humvee trailer, just an oversized trailer, that we're going to be taking with us to try to bring a pallet of water and a pallet of food to Hackberry and Cameron.

    We're going to go ahead and try to make a rescue trip out there, so that they're not stranded for as long as they have been in past storms.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meanwhile, in Washington, President Trump visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency for an update on the conditions on the ground.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We got a little bit lucky. It was very big, it was very powerful, but it passed quickly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He plans to tour the damage this weekend.

    Back in Louisiana, the system's sustained winds dropped to tropical storm status as it lumbered farther inland. But it will still unleash strong winds across Northern Louisiana and Arkansas overnight, before turning east.

    Forecasters warn the storm's impact will be felt across the mid-Atlantic through the weekend.

    Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, took a direct hit as Hurricane Laura storm came ashore overnight.

    Tom Hoefer is the public information officer and director of communications for the parish, and he joins us now from Lake Charles. That is the parish seat.

    Mr. Hoefer, tell us, first of all, just how bad is it?

  • Tom Hoefer:

    Well, in one sense, we really took a punch in the chin on this one with the wind damage. The wind damage is pretty severe.

    Lots and lots of homes, businesses, other buildings have roof damage. And some of that is — you know, the building will have to be torn down and rebuilt. The good side, I guess, of what happened to us overnight is that we did not get the storm surge that was predicted.

    And so we were able to sort of escape having to do all of the search-and-rescue that they had trained for and anticipated having to do. So, that was the good side of it. The wind damage is the bad side.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes. And describe what that wind damage means to the parish.

  • Tom Hoefer:

    Well, first of all, there's no power anywhere. Nobody has electricity. And that's because the infrastructure of the electrical grid has been severely damaged. And it's going to take them quite a bit of time to get that back up and going.

    And it's August in South Louisiana. It's hot. So, you need air conditioning, and we don't have it because of that. So that's a part of that.

    Also, the transportation is difficult. One of the first things that we did with our organization this morning was get our public works crews out to clear the roadways, so many trees down on roadways, so many power lines and power poles down on the roadways that needed to be cleared off, so that we could start the process of recovering.

    And that's going well. I know the city crews in Lake Charles and Sulphur, the other communities have done a good job with that as well. And the state of Louisiana has to do that as well on the state routes. So, all of that is ongoing, and that's a start to get us back to recovery as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And people were generally evacuated, as they had been urged to do?

  • Tom Hoefer:

    It was an interesting evacuation, because, on Monday, when we realized that the storm was likely to come our way, they were talking about a Category 1 or 2 hurricane.

    And so it was an advisory, a recommended evacuation, not a mandated evacuation. And then, on Tuesday, the forecast zeroed sort of in on us. And they had upped the strength likelihood to be a Category 3, and so that's when the mandatory evacuation was called.

    People really started to pay attention at that point, and started to make a plan to evacuate. That was on Tuesday.

    And then Wednesday morning, yesterday morning, when the forecast was calling for a Category 4 or even 5 hurricane to make a direct hit on us, a lot more people went out then. And we're glad they did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For sure. I'm sure that a lot of lives were saved.

    We know that there was a chemical plant that — where there was a fire. Where does that stand right now?

  • Tom Hoefer:

    I believe, based on what my information is, is that is now out. It was in an unfortunate location.

    It's right across the Calcasieu River in the city of Westlake, an industrial area there. The company manufactures pool chemicals. So, there was a fear that it would be a chlorine cloud, which could be quite dangerous. So, there was a shelter-in-place order for some communities on the west side of the parish.

    Now I believe all of that is taken care of. It's also right along the interstate. They had to stop traffic on Interstate 10 as well for a good while.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally, Mr. Hoefer, what about the fact that we are in the middle of a pandemic? How do you think that complicates or — everything, or hasn't it?

  • Tom Hoefer:

    It still complicates everything that we do about sheltering.

    You know, beforehand, normally, in a hurricane, we would bus hundreds and hundreds of people to shelters in North Louisiana in areas that are outside of the hurricane impact zone. That is inadvisable in a pandemic.

    You can't put people, 50 in a bus, and for a three-hour or four-hour ride, and not expect to spread the diseases. Then you put them in a basketball arena somewhere, hundreds or even thousands together in an indoor setting, you're going to spread the disease.

    And now that the hurricane has passed, you know, we still have that. We have some people that it would be best if they'd leave town, and maybe we could find a shelter for them under different circumstances.

    But you just — it's a risk that you don't want to take. We have been hit very hard by COVID-19 in Southwest Louisiana. So, we don't feel comfortable, you know, that — putting people together at this point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we are certainly glad that it wasn't any worse, but we wish you the very best, because it's clear you have a lot left to do before things get anywhere close back to normal.

    Tom Hoefer in Calcasieu Parish, thank you very much.

  • Tom Hoefer:

    Thank you.

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