(Bloomberg) — Hurricane Laura raked Louisiana early Thursday, becoming one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the state, leaving in its wake chemical fires, wrecked buildings, flooded roads and what could be more than $15 billion in insured losses.
It became a tropical storm about noon local time. It had lost about half its power since storming ashore at 1 a.m. near Cameron, Louisiana, with maximum winds of 150 miles (241 kilometers) per hour, matching a record set in 1856. It killed at least four people in Louisiana when trees fell on their homes. And in Lake Charles, residents were ordered inside while smoke from a damaged plant billowed into the air.
Laura extended an extremely active Atlantic hurricane season that still has three months to go. It was the seventh system to hit the U.S., a record for this time of year, and the first major hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast since Michael in 2018.
The storm prompted mandatory evacuations in coastal areas, and targeted the heart of America’s energy industry, shutting more than 80% of Gulf oil production and a third of the region’s refining capacity. It scored a direct hit on plants that produce chemicals and liquefied natural gas.
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Death Toll in Louisiana Rises to Four (2:35 p.m. NY)
Four people in Louisiana died in Hurricane Laura when trees fell on their homes, Governor John Bel Edwards said at an afternoon news briefing.
The state has “thousands and thousands of citizens whose lives are upside down” because homes and businesses are damaged, he said in Baton Rouge, the capital. “We did not sustain the absolute catastrophic damage we thought was likely based on the forecast, but we have sustained a tremendous amount of damage.”
The state saw 9 feet to 12 feet of storm surge, and some gauges in Cameron Parish near the storm’s landfall failed after registering 12 feet, Edwards said.
The Isle of Capri gambling boat, which broke free in Lake Charles, has been removed from where it lodged under an Interstate 10 bridge. Inspections of the aged and decaying bridge will begin via drone, said Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson.
Louisiana had 1,500 people available for search-and-rescue missions, Edwards said. 5,400 National Guardsmen have been activated.
Air Monitors Disabled Before the Storm (2 p.m. NY)
Before the storm hit, Texas and Louisiana regulators disabled dozens of air monitors meant to detect carcinogenic benzene, ozone-forming compounds, and other pollution.
Monitors installed across Beaumont and Houston — the heart of the U.S. petrochemical and refining complex — “are not designed to withstand hurricane-force winds,” the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said.
Environmentalists and public health experts warned Thursday that without active air monitoring, communities and regulators can miss silent and sometimes odorless chemical leaks.
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That Was the Storm that Was (1 p.m. NY)
Tropical Storm Laura’s winds dropped to 70 miles per hour about 50 miles southeast of Shreveport, Louisiana, losing its hurricane status. But it continued to wring out flooding rains across the region, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in a special statement at 12 p.m. local time.
The storm has lost more than half its power since coming ashore early Thursday with winds of 150 mph, a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir Simpson scale. It left a trail of wreckage throughout Louisiana and killed at least two people there in addition to the nine that died earlier as the storm crossed the Caribbean.
More than 650,000 homes and businesses were without power in Louisiana and Texas at about 12 p.m. local time, according to utility websites.
Laura is tied with the strongest hurricane to hit Louisiana since 1856 and is one four storms that struck the western U.S. Gulf of Mexico with winds of 150 mph.
It is forecast to lose still more power and will eventually be swept back into the Atlantic by a weather front coming out of the Midwest and moving to the Northeast this weekend.
Louisiana Casinos Wrecked in Deluge (12:45 p.m. NY)
Louisiana casinos appear to have suffered considerable damage from Hurricane Laura.
Television station WKRG posted a video showing pieces of the roof flying off the Golden Nugget in Lake Charles. Other photos revealed shattered windows and debris. The $700 million resort is part of billionaire Tilman Fertitta’s restaurant and casino empire.
The Isle of Capri, a riverboat-style casino also in Lake Charles, broke from its mooring and appeared stuck under the I-10 bridge, according to online photos. The property is owned by Caesars Entertainment Inc.
Nearby, L’Auberge, owned by Penn National Gaming Inc., also appears to have suffered damage, according to WVUE reporter Rob Krieger, who posted pictures showing parts of the building sheared off. Other photos showed a room with a collapsed wall. A spokesman for Penn said all employees are safe.
Delta Downs, in nearby Vinton, appears to have had its tote board blown down. Three more of Boyd Gaming Corp.’s Louisiana properties were closed and two have emerged unscathed, a spokesman said.
Chemical Plant Burns Near Lake Charles (12:20 p.m. NY)
Emergency officials are on the scene of a chemical fire at a BioLab Inc. plant in Westlake, Louisiana, not far from Laura’s landfall, said Captain Chavez Cammon of the Louisiana State Police Department.
The company manufactures pool and spa chemicals, according to its website.The chemical involved is chlorine, Cammon said, and video on social media showed clouds billowing across Interstate 10.
Governor John Bel Edwards on Twitter warned residents to close windows and doors and shut off air conditioning.
Laura Could Cost Insurers Most This Year (12:05 p.m. NY)
Hurricane Laura could be the costliest U.S. hurricane for insurers so far this year, said Matthew Palazola, a senior analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence.
“We believe a loss in the low-teens billions of dollars is possible, but there’s still a large amount of uncertainty,” Palazola said. “Insurers such as CNA, Chubb and Allstate are staring down a costly Hurricane Laura, yet a worst-case scenario may have been avoided as the storm didn’t directly hit New Orleans or Houston.”
Once-Mighty Laura Barely a Hurricane (11 a.m. NY)
Laura’s top winds fell to 75 mph. It was 55 miles southeast of Shreveport, Louisiana, moving north at 16 mph.
The storm is hardly barely a hurricane. It is a Category 1 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. When its winds fall to 73 mph, it will become a tropical storm.
“The cyclone will become a tropical storm this afternoon and is expected to weaken to a tropical depression tonight or early Friday,” Dan Brown, a meteorologist with the U.S. National Hurricane Center wrote in his forecast.
Lake Charles Measures Laura’s Toll (10:45 a.m. NY)
In the area near landfall in Louisiana, the extent of the devastation became clear with the dawn Thursday.
Matt Redd surveyed the damage to his Lake Charles commercial properties from his white Ford Expedition. He stopped at the red-brick office building that he rents to a Keller Williams real-estate office, a salon and a juice bar. All three stories were drenched.
“There was water everywhere,” said Redd, a developer who has built about 80,000 square feet of office, retail and industrial space in the area. “The roof must have blown off.”
Maximum sustained winds at the Lake Charles Airport were clocked at 98 miles per hour with a gusts up to 132 miles per hour, Marc Chenard, senior branch forecaster for the U.S. Weather Prediction Center said.
Eddie Earl Lewis Jr., a 49-year-old Lake Charles resident, said in a telephone interview that businesses and houses suffered extensive wind damage.“The major casinos down here got tore up,” said Lewis, a member of the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, akin to a county commission. “The houses are real bad.”
In nearby Cameron Parish, home to two major liquefied natural gas terminals, port director Clair Herbert Marceaux, said roads are impassable, with downed power lines and trees and overflowing marshes. Helicopters must wait for winds to die down before they can fly in to assess damage, she said.
Tudor Pickering Holt & Co. analyst Jordan McNiven said the early prognosis is good for the gas terminals, thanks to storm surges lower than forecast.
“It looks like we’ll make it through with limited impact,” he said. Down time could “be measured in days, not weeks.”
Texas Refinery Lets Off Pollutants (10 a.m. NY)
In the rush to batten down ahead of Laura’s arrival, the biggest oil refinery on the continent sprang a leak and spewed unidentified hydrocarbons into the air to maintain control, according to a regulatory filing.
The facility in Port Arthur, Texas, owned by Saudi Aramco’s Motiva Enteprises, also had to deploy booms to prevent any spills from spreading into nearby waterways, the company said in a filing with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Coronavirus Keeps the Adjusters at a Distance (9:55 a.m. NY)
Hurricane victims can usually count on one thing: a swarm of insurance adjusters. But the coronavirus pandemic is hindering their appearance.
State Farm readied hundreds of claim specialists in Dallas and Birmingham, Alabama, this week. They’re usually briefed and equipped in conference rooms, but this week, the company used drive-through tents instead.
State Farm expects to deploy video conferencing apps to handle vehicle inspections, though the company said it may also use drones. For homeowners, it may have to do in-person inspections and workers will wear personal protective equipment and practice social distancing.
“As daylight arrives and conditions become safe for customers to look over their property for damage, we’re ready,” Chris Pilcic, a spokesman, said in an email.
Damage is Heavy in Louisiana, Governor Says (8:50 a.m. NY)
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards called Laura’s damage “extensive,” because the wind speed was “as promised,” even though the storm surge “appears to have been about half as what was forecasted.”
Inland areas suffered mostly structural damage from the wind, Edwards said on CNN. “It looks like we got an assist there,” Edwards said of the lower-than-predicted surge, which forecasters Wednesday had called “unsurvivable.”
Louisiana hasn’t recorded a death from the storm, Edwards said. However, water is still coming in to Cameron and Vermillion parishes in southwest Louisiana. And assessments are just beginning, with relatively few areas surveyed. Edwards said officials haven’t been able to get a good aerial view of the damage yet but hope National Guard helicopters will be up soon.
Throughout the storm-hit region, more than 510,000 homes and businesses were without power as of 7:15 am local time, mostly in Louisiana, according to utility websites.
“Power outages are going to become more extensive,” Edwards said.
Laura’s Costs Will Fall Most Heavily on Louisiana (8:25 a.m. NY)
Hurricane Laura is expected to cost insurance companies as much as $15 billion, with 80% of those losses coming from Louisiana and 20% from Texas, according to Wells Fargo & Co. analysts.
The losses could be a blow to reinsurers, which provide insurance for insurers, serving as backstops while earning premiums that they invest elsewhere.
“It is tough to tell how much exposure the reinsurers will have, as higher Louisiana losses will likely lead to more losses for reinsurers and a more Texas-focused event would result in more losses being retained by primary insurance companies,” analysts led by Elyse Greenspan said in the note to clients Thursday.
That’s because the insurance market in Texas is dominated by national carriers such as State Farm and Travelers, while Louisiana is served by many smaller, regional companies, the analysts said.
Hurricane Laura’s path closely resembles that of Ike in 2008, the Wells Fargo analysts said. That storm — which also made landfall near the border between Louisiana and Texas — inflicted wind damage in the Houston area, leading to insured losses of $12.5 billion, or $15 billion in today’s dollars.
Largest Refinery Dodges a Blow (8:20 a.m. NY)
Jefferson County, Texas, which encompasses Beaumont and Port Arthur — and the country’s largest refinery — emerged from the storm battered but not ravaged by 85 mph winds.
There was no significant damage to property or industry, said spokeswoman Allison Getz. The storm surge, which was forecast as high as 20 feet in Louisiana, was relatively gentle, she said. Though trees were down and power out, “we can handle that,” she said.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott offered an optimistic early take on CNN.
“Early reports are there were no deaths, and one reason for that is people did heed the warnings to evacuate,” he said.
Search and rescue teams “are already going throughout the entire area” looking for people who need assistance, Abbott said, adding that he was concerned about water levels and damage in Jefferson County.
The Lights Are Out on the Gulf as Laura Blows Through (7 a.m. NY)
More than 400,000 homes and businesses in the storm’s path were without power at 6 a.m. local time, according to utility websites.
The eye of the storm, now downgraded to Category 2, has moved inland. By this weekend, a front moving across the Midwest will pick up Laura and race it east across the U.S. and out to sea, said Don Keeney, a meteorologist with commercial forecaster Maxar.Keeney said he is concerned about flooding and crop damage across western Louisiana and parts of Arkansas, but the rains will be beneficial further east in Mississippi and Tennessee. Laura will probably be moving too fast to bring widespread flooding as it crosses the eastern U.S.
Laura could gain strength this weekend as it moves back into the Atlantic, with winds rising to 50 mph or more.
Severe Damage Reported in Lake Charles, Louisiana (5:45 a.m. NY)
Reports of damage in Louisiana appeared on social media after Hurricane Laura battered the state with winds as strong as 150 miles per hour. Storm chaser Reed Timmer posted videos on Twitter from the city of Lake Charles, one of several accounts showing severe damage to buildings.
Hurricane conditions were spreading farther inland across the southwest of the state, the NHC said in an advisory. Maximum winds weakened to 110 miles an hour, while the risk of a storm surge and flash flooding remained.
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