LAKE CHARLES, La. (NewsNation) — One of the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the U.S., Laura barreled across Louisiana on Thursday, shearing off roofs, killing at least six people and maintaining ferocious strength while carving a destructive path hundreds of miles inland.
The deaths were all caused by trees falling on residences, Edwards said. None were on the coast, having happened in Vernon, Jackson and Acadia parishes. One death in Jackson in north Louisiana demonstrated the power of the storm, which made landfall as a Category 4 storm early Thursday and traveled farther inland.
Edwards’ Chief of Staff Christine Stephens confirmed a 14-year-old girl was killed when a tree fell on her home. She also said more fatalities could be expected.
Acadia Parish Sheriff K.P. Gibson confirmed the second storm-related death, a 60-year-old Iota man, after a tree fell onto him, NewsNation affiliate KLFY reported.
A full assessment of the damage wrought by the Category 4 system was likely to take days. But despite a trail of demolished buildings, entire neighborhoods left in ruins and more than 875,000 people without power, a sense of relief prevailed that Laura was not the annihilating menace forecasters had feared.
“It is clear that we did not sustain and suffer the absolute, catastrophic damage that we thought was likely,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said. “But we have sustained a tremendous amount of damage.”
He called Laura the most powerful hurricane to strike Louisiana, meaning it surpassed even Katrina, which was a Category 3 storm when it hit in 2005.
The priority, Edwards said, was search and rescue, followed by efforts to find hotel or motel rooms for those unable to stay in their homes. Officials in Texas and Louisiana have both sought to avoid traditional mass shelters for evacuees over fears of spreading COVID-19, and Edwards was concerned that the storm would inhibit coronavirus testing as schools and universities are reopening.
President Donald Trump said Thursday he will visit the Gulf Coast this weekend to survey the damage caused by Laura.
Hurricane Laura, now a tropical storm in southern Arkansas, made landfall after midnight Wednesday in Texas and Louisiana. It’s one of the strongest storms to ever hit Louisiana, joining the ranks of the hard-hitting 1957 Hurricane Audrey.
Downed trees and structural damage were reported in some parts of Arkansas at midday Thursday, and more than 30,000 homes and businesses in the state were without electricity.
The National Weather Service says the damaging winds and torrential rains will be in the Little Rock area later Thursday afternoon and evening. Many schools canceled classes or had early dismissals in anticipation of Laura’s arrival.
Forecasters say there’s also the risk of isolated tornadoes in the eastern part of the state.
The governors of Louisiana and Texas said search and rescue teams are still looking, but they’ve found no reports so far of widespread fatalities.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott credited the evacuations of thousands of people for preventing deaths in Texas. However, many of those evacuees are now in inland Texas — left scrambling to find shelter away from home.
More than 580,000 coastal residents evacuated under the shadow of a pandemic and calls for masks and social distancing to combat its spread. It was the largest evacuation order since the pandemic began and many people followed it, filling hotels and sleeping in cars.
Gov. Edwards said Louisiana officials are only beginning to assess the damage.
Both governors said they expect more storm-related fatalities.
Laura was tied with five other storms for fifth-most powerful U.S. hurricane, behind the 1935’s Labor Day storm, 1969’s Camille, 1992’s Andrew and 2004’s Charley, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.