Hurricane Laura made landfall about 1 a.m. August 27 near Cameron, La., a small community located on the southwest Louisiana coast where the Calcasieu Ship Channel meets the Gulf of Mexico. A Category 4 hurricane at landfall, Laura came ashore with Doppler radar- and Air Force reconnaissance-indicated maximum sustained winds of near 150 mph., making it one of the most powerful storms on record to make landfall on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
The National Weather Service’s National Hurricane Center (NHC) offered a grim forecast ahead of the storm, warning that “unsurvivable storm surge with large and destructive waves will cause catastrophic damage from Sea Rim State Park, Texas, to Intracoastal City, La., including Calcasieu and Sabine lakes.” NHC estimated Laura’s surge could travel “up to 40 miles inland from the immediate coastline,” bringing that peak surge past where the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) intersects the Calcasieu Ship Channel and as far as Lake Charles, La.
Heeding that warning, inland towing vessels and bluewater vessels alike cleared out of Calcasieu Lake, with many heading east on the GIWW or west toward Orange and Port Arthur, Texas, or farther west to Houston. Others sought safe harbor farther up the Calcasieu River toward Lake Charles and Sulphur, La.
As Laura plowed northward through the night and through the day, vessel crews began to assess conditions. Though Laura’s winds were consistent with forecasting, many mariners reported lower than expected surge numbers.
“We had 13 vessels in Port Arthur, Texas, and four in Lake Charles, La.,” said Clark Todd, president and chief operating officer of Blessey Marine Services. “Thank goodness all of our vessels and crew members are safe and sound this morning. Tidal surge was not nearly as high as expected or anticipated. My vessels reported 3 to 5 feet of tidal surge in Lake Charles. However, they did report sustained winds of 135 mph. on their wind gauges.”
Clark said the Blessey vessels in Port Arthur experienced a tidal surge of 1 or 2 feet, with wind gusts from 85 to 90 mph. He added that Blessey crews reported some minor damage to barges in Lake Charles due to a barge breakaway, along with some cracked windows and damage to radars and antennas.
“That was about it,” Clark said. “I think we dodged a bullet.”
Lynn Hohensee, port director of West Calcasieu Port, located on the GIWW just west of where it meets the Calcasieu Ship Channel, said the barge fleet at his facility safely rode out the storm as well.
“At the West Cal Port, we had 140 barges in safe harbor fleet,” Hohensee said. “All survived without damage, largely to the credit of Devall Fleeting. Many in the Devall family actually rode out the storm on their boats at the port to assure no barges broke loose.”
Hohensee added that, while four port buildings sustained damage, there were no injuries or loss of life.
Not all facilities along the Calcasieu Ship Channel were as fortunate, though. A fire and chlorine release at the BioLab Inc. facility in Westlake, La., near Bayou Contraband, triggered a shelter-in-place order for surrounding communities and a closure of Interstate 10. Nearby, the Isle of Capri Casino boat broke its moorings and became wedged under the I-10 bridge over the Calcasieu Ship Channel.
In an afternoon press conference following the storm’s landfall, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards echoed that relief over the lower-than-anticipated storm surge.
“Look, 9 to 12 feet is still a lot of storm surge, and we did have some gauges in Cameron Parish that actually failed after registering 12 feet,” Edwards said. “So we think there were some values higher than 12, probably none higher than 15 feet. That’s a lot of surge, but it’s not the 20 feet we were told.”
Edwards noted that the storm never tracked west of the Calcasieu Ship Channel, which might have spared the waterway from having so much water pushed inland. Gauges in the area appear to back that up. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gauge at Calcasieu Pass bounced from about 3 feet up to 11 feet at exactly 1 a.m. Another farther inland at Lake Charles dipped from about 2 feet down to zero at 1 a.m., then sharply up to 6 feet, suggesting some type of malfunction. Farther west at Sabine Pass, another NOAA tide station rose from 3 feet up to 5.2 feet as the storm made landfall before returning to normal.
Edwards said he hopes the lower surge numbers will mean a more expeditious recovery for residents and businesses in the area.
“The water damage was less than anticipated,” he said. “Hopefully that means the homes that were damaged can be made habitable and safe and secure much more quickly and cheaply than normally would be the case.”
Edwards also expressed thanks that the state never lost communication with the southwest Louisiana parishes.
“I think that’s a result of the investments we’ve made over the years, really since Hurricane Katrina, to make sure we have state-of-the-art and redundant communication systems in place,” he said. “It also made it, not just easier, but faster for us to discuss what was going on in the affected parishes to assess their needs and directing the assistance just as soon as it was safe to do that.”
Edwards confirmed four deaths as a result of Laura, all of which were related to downed trees. None of the deaths took place in southwest Louisiana, he said, but farther inland.
As the day progressed, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA teams, along with select private vessel crews, got to work assessing area waterways for damage, obstructions and shoaling. At press time, the GIWW from Mile 345 (Bolivar area) and west was open to navigation. The waterway from Mile 20 to Mile 345, along with locks along that stretch, remained closed, pending surveys. Updates regarding navigation infrastructure, port conditions and waterways impacted by Laura are available on the Coast Guard’s Homeport website.