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Gulf Coast gears up for monster Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm

Potential catastrophe is blowing out of the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Laura has morphed into a Category 4 monster, with winds that could reach 145 miles per hour. Officials are warning of extreme damage as the storm slams into the coastlines of Texas and Louisiana. Judy Woodruff reports and talks to Ken Graham of the National Hurricane Center and Craig Brown, mayor pro tem of Galveston, Texas.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Catastrophe is blowing out of the Gulf of Mexico tonight, upstaging night three of the Republican Convention.

    Hurricane Laura has morphed into a Category 4 monster, with winds that could reach 145 miles an hour. Officials are warning of extreme damage as it slams into the Texas-Louisiana coastline.

    In coastal communities along the Louisiana and Texas Gulf Coast, floodwaters began creeping in throughout the day. But experts tracking the storm have issued a dire warning: This is only the beginning.

  • Gov. John Bel Edwards:

    You're going to hear ranges of storm surges we haven't heard in Louisiana since Hurricane Audrey in 1957. You're going to hear the word unsurvivable to describe the storm surge that we are expecting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hurricane Laura grew in intensity as it reached the Gulf Coast, and officials are warning of potential catastrophe. The National Hurricane Center said storm surges could reach 20 feet in parts of Texas and Louisiana.

  • Gov. John Bel Edwards:

    The worst thing you can do is, when that storm really starts beating at your door at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, is to decide, well, I'm going to leave now, because that will be the absolute worst decision you can make at that point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The storm has prompted the largest evacuation since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. More than half-a-million people near the Texas-Louisiana border have been ordered to leave their homes.

    Adding to the concern, the region has been hit hard by the coronavirus and is still suffering from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey three years ago.

    If the current projections hold, Hurricane Laura would be the fiercest storm to hit the Gulf Coast in over a decade.

    Let's get the latest on all of this with Ken Graham. He's the director of the National Hurricane Center. And he's in Miami.

    Ken Graham, thank you so much for talking with us.

    So, give us the latest on where this storm is.

  • Ken Graham:

    Yes, Judy, we're right here in operations.

    The hurricane forecasters and specialists are right behind me constantly getting the latest information. The brand-new information we have, 145 mile-an-hour winds. And we're about 155 miles south of Lake Charles, Louisiana, so just a giant storm, pronounced eye, and all those impacts headed for Louisiana and Texas tonight.

    We expect a landfall overnight tonight.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, give us a sense of where you expect it to hit at this point. Between where and where?

  • Ken Graham:

    Yes, it looks like, right now, we're looking at right around the Lake Charles, Beaumont, Port Arthur area with a major hurricane, just extreme winds, hurricane-force winds.

    Judy, the tropical-storm-force winds alone stretch out 205 miles out from the center, so extreme rainfall. And the big thing here is, well outside the cone well, away from the center, the storm surge, unsurvivable storm surges, just incredible amounts of water here, 10 to 15 feet, some areas, 15 to 20 feet, and not just along the coast, but some of this storm surge could stretch even up to 50 miles north of the coast.

    That's just an incredible amount of storm surge, a dangerous situation for so many people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we're talking about a huge population.

    Ken Graham, when we hear you use the word unsurvivable, that is frightening. I mean, you mean that literally?

  • Ken Graham:

    I do.

    Looking for the words to describe this situation, when you start thinking about 10 to 15 foot of storm surge, 20 foot of storm surge, Judy, the waves are on top of that. So, in addition to that, you still have the waves.

    And well north — I mean, this is I-10 — you start thinking about north of I-10, every one of these rivers and bayous and canals that normally drain all that rain to the Gulf, the surge is coming up those same areas. They're going to flow backward, and that's what's going to cause this flooding.

    That amount, that's higher than many rooftops, a dangerous situation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you're telling people, get out of the way, or else?

  • Ken Graham:

    That's what's happening here, because, if you think about those type of values, yes, evacuations, everything. We have been encouraging everybody to listen to those local officials.

    If they tell you to leave, you have to be able to do that, because these impacts — these impacts are well before landfall. And we're already starting to see some areas with the rising water.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there a chance — or what is the chance that this could weaken before it hits populated areas?

  • Ken Graham:

    Well, what happens in this case is, you start getting a large storm like this.

    So, even if you get five miles an hour more or less, it's not going to change these impacts at this stage, because a lot of the storm surge, it has to do with the structure of the storm, the size of the storm.

    So, even if the winds fluctuate some, it's not going to change these big impacts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, again, you're looking at direction, you're looking at the wind, and you're looking at the rain that it's bringing with it.

  • Ken Graham:

    Yes, absolutely, the storm surge and also the rainfall.

    And it's not just coastal. I mean, if you look northward, just an incredible amount of rain, five to eight inches of rain, some areas maybe even up to 15 inches of rain stretching from portions of East Texas, portions of Louisiana, even up to Arkansas, as the system continues to move inland.

    So it's not just a coastal threat. Even well inland, you can get those high winds, and you can get the flooding rains.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ken Graham, it's going to be a busy night, another busy night at the National Hurricane Center. Thank you very much.

  • Ken Graham:

    Thank you.

    Now let's check in on the ground with preparations and concerns. I'm joined on the phone from Galveston, Texas, with its mayor pro tem. He is Craig Brown.

    Mayor Brown, thank you for talking with us.

    So, based on what you know, what sort of preparations have you made?

  • Craig Brown:

    Well, we have been planning for a number of days for Hurricane Laura.

    We have been following it closely. We called a mandatory evacuation yesterday for our citizens. And we assisted those that needed assistance to move them off the island and into safe housing.

    We're currently watching this hurricane. We're watching the intensity. I understand it's now a Category 4 and could get even stronger, which is extremely concerning for us. It looks like we may — it may go to our east a little bit, but it could come right in here. And, if it did, it could be devastating for our community.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What are you mainly worried about? Is it the storm surge, the water that is your main concern?

  • Craig Brown:

    I think both storm surge and the wind.

    When you have — it's coming to us, it comes to us, 145-mile-per-hour sustained winds could be just devastating. The storm surge is always the concern. We're a barrier island here off the coast of Texas, and if we get a storm surge that's associated with this with a direct hit, it would inundate our entire island.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are people heeding the evacuation order? Is everybody leaving?

  • Craig Brown:

    They — many are.

    Now, some have elected to stay on the island here. We have already informed our citizens, if they do stay, that they may not get any emergency services provided, because of the conditions may not allow that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How worried are you about that?

  • Craig Brown:

    Quite a bit.

    We would love for our citizens to evacuate. Those that did not, though, we are telling them to shelter in place and stay safe. We do have — we're on the island now. Our first responders and city personnel are at our command center here on the island.

    We will be out all night, until the conditions allow us not to be. Once the storm passes through, we will be out assessing damage, and then start our cleanup, if it's needed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And where will you be monitoring all this? And do you have the resources from other governments to support you?

  • Craig Brown:

    We do.

    We feel — we have been through many hurricanes, as most coastal cities have, but here in Galveston, we have been through many hurricanes. We're prepared. Our state government, the Texas Department of Emergency Management, has been extremely cooperative, our county and our federal government.

    They contacted us today, offered any type of assistance they could. And so we feel very comfortable we have good support.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Mayor Craig Brown, mayor pro tem of Galveston, we certainly wish you the very best with all that you're dealing with.

    Thank you so much.

  • Craig Brown:

    You're welcome. Thank you.

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