Hurricane Laura, which made landfall near Cameron, Louisiana, early on Thursday as a Category 4 storm, is bringing high winds, storm surge and flash floods that could make emergency response impossible for people hunkered down in their homes.
Local authorities issued dire warnings to people in Texas and Louisiana to evacuate before the storm began to damage buildings and cause widespread power outages. However, they fear that not enough people evacuated or people were unable to leave, especially as states grapple with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
In the largest U.S. evacuation of the pandemic, more than 1.5 million people were ordered to flee the coastal regions of Texas and Louisiana beginning Tuesday, after officials warned of Laura's "unsurvivable" storm surge.
"We know anyone that stayed that close to the coast, we've got to pray for them, because looking at the storm surge, there would be little chance of survival," Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Port Arthur, a city of about 50,000 people along Texas' Gulf Coast, has been hit by several storms, including Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Tropical Storm Imelda last year. But Laura, one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the U.S. Gulf Coast, was expected to devastate the region and make rescue efforts during the storm impossible.
"Don't dial 911. No one's going to answer," Port Arthur Mayor Thurman Bartie said to those who didn't leave their homes. "Know that it's just you and God."
In Vermilion Parish on the Louisiana coast, local officials warned residents who stayed at home that emergency response would not come until after the storm and to prepare for the worst outcome.
"Those choosing to stay and face this very dangerous storm must understand that rescue efforts cannot and will not begin until after storm and surge has passed and it is safe to do so," the sheriff's office wrote. "Please evacuate and if you choose to stay and we can't get to you, write your name, address, social security number and next of kin and put it [in] a ziplock bag in your pocket."
"Expecting the worse but praying for the best," the office said.
As Laura travels through Louisiana, the National Hurricane Center said that the storm surge and floodwaters may last for another day. The extent of the damage is not yet clear, but the center warned that the surge could go above 15 feet in some areas and go as far as 40 miles inland.
Before the storm made landfall, people had to make hard decisions about staying or leaving as officials urged residents to get out immediately.
"We just trying, I've been homeless for 2 years, boss. I'm just trying to get out of the position I'm in ... that's all there is to it," Jheryl Sterling told Bloomberg News as he was leaving Port Arthur.
Among concerns over evacuating is the risk of contracting the coronavirus in public transit or in potentially crowded shelters. Others may not be able to afford gas or transit to flee to safety.
"They can't necessarily get a hotel room, or they can't afford the gasoline and the cost of traveling hundreds of miles out of town, or out of an evacuation zone," former Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said in an interview with CNN.
Evacuation shelters opened with social distancing measures in place to curb infection. In Louisiana, the state took people to hotels instead of shelters because of virus concerns and added evacuation buses to the schedule to avoid crowding.