Louisiana coastline prepares to be battered, again, with arrival of Hurricane Delta

Such is life along the Gulf this hurricane season, which has brought repeated attacks on coastal communities from Texas to Florida, an unrelenting barrage of rising water, heavy rain and killer winds that have uprooted trees and sent them crashing down on occupied homes. While 2020 has been cruel in so many other ways because of the coronavirus outbreak and resulting economic challenges, Mother Nature has not eased her grip here either.

“Unfortunately, Hurricane Delta is expected to make landfall in Southwest Louisiana … and very, very close to the exact location that Hurricane Laura made landfall just over a month ago,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said Thursday. “It is very clear that Southwest Louisiana is going to get more of a punch from this than we would like to see for sure, because they’re still trying to recover from Hurricane Laura.”

Lake Charles and surrounding towns still bear fresh scars from Laura, with scores of buildings sitting under tarps, roofs shredded, awnings naked and crooked, windows boarded up, trees down.

And they are about to go through it all again.

Ben Rentrop recalled riding out Hurricane Laura in the home he shares with his sister, and he also plans to do it this time around. He said the last storm was scary, as trees fell all around his family’s house.

“I’m praying to the Lord that he’ll take care of us again,” Rentrop said, standing near the city’s bus station as one of the last rides out of town pulled away.

Nearby, tiny Cameron, La., a community on the water’s edge that was nearly annihilated in the final days of August when Laura roared through, looked like it could be close to Delta’s path on Friday evening, according to predictions from the National Weather Service. It is still without electricity and could be for months.

Authorities urged people from the Lake Charles area east toward Lafayette and west toward Texas to evacuate and seek higher ground as the wetlands along the shoreline were almost certain to take another hit. Campers, jam-packed SUVs and pickup trucks sat in a colossal traffic jam on Interstate 10 as people appeared to heed those warnings, heading toward the Texas border.

In Calcasieu Parish, where Lake Charles is located and which was hard-hit by Hurricane Laura, a mandatory evacuation order went into effect at 5 p.m. Thursday. In Cameron Parish, a mandatory evacuation order impacting most residents begins at 6 a.m. Friday. The Cameron Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness noted in the evacuation order that “these are unprecedented circumstances” and that “a large portion of our residents are still displaced due to Laura.”

That displacement from weeks ago continues to complicate the state’s hurricane preparedness and response, as there are nearly 7,000 evacuees from Hurricane Laura who already are sheltered in hotels across the region, dramatically reducing the ability to evacuate others.

In a typical storm season, Louisiana would create mass shelters for hurricane evacuees in arenas or other large buildings. This year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the state’s shelter plans instead use non-congregate settings (NCS), such as individual hotel rooms, to maintain social distancing.

But as Delta approached, Edwards sought emergency federal assistance, writing in a letter to President Trump that “all of the major hotels that can offer NCS are directly in the path of the storm.”

Without federal assistance, Edwards wrote, the state would have neither the capacity to move Laura evacuees if needed nor the ability to provide shelter to those newly impacted by Delta. Louisiana agencies already have spent an estimated $900 million this year related to the coronavirus pandemic, he wrote.

Trump approved Edwards’s request for a federal emergency declaration ahead of Delta’s arrival.

Although Delta is not expected to be as strong as Hurricane Laura, the Weather Service projects that it could near land as a powerful Category 3 storm. Ben Schott of the National Weather Service in New Orleans said the hurricane is expected to have impacts well away from its center track, with a very large wind field that could affect most of Louisiana.

The storm is expected to create multiple storm hazards along the northern Gulf Coast, including storm surge flooding, damaging winds and tornadoes. Hurricane warnings are in effect from High Island, Tex., to Morgan City, La., and projections suggest Delta’s center will pass as close as 10 to 15 miles east of Lake Charles.

Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter urged residents to leave, again, cautioning in an online video that he could not assure people that the region “is going to be a safe place this weekend.”

Storm surges could send as much as 11 feet of Gulf water into coastal areas, and tropical storm conditions could arrive on Louisiana’s edge by Friday morning.

Almost amazingly, the fragile, low-lying city of New Orleans appears to have lucked out yet again, with the hurricane’s track taking it well west of the city and probably sparing it from severe wind and flooding. Though 15 years removed from Hurricane Katrina — which killed more than 1,800 people in August 2005 — New Orleans braces for disaster every time a hurricane nears. If Delta continues to steer away from the city, it will be the third straight major storm that threatened but became a near miss.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) issued an emergency proclamation and warned locals to remain vigilant even as Delta’s projected landfall shifted west. “We are not in the cone, but again we do anticipate feeling strong impacts related to Hurricane Delta,” she said Thursday.

Officials urged residents to expect tropical-storm-force winds, heavy rainfall and possibly flash flooding or tornadoes beginning as early as Thursday in the city.

“Even though the centerline is to the west of us, these tropical storm force winds extend almost 130 miles out from the storm,” said Lauren Nash, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “That’s why the city of New Orleans is currently in that tropical storm warning.”

Collin Arnold, New Orleans’ director of homeland security and emergency preparedness, warned citizens to remain on guard despite the storm’s projected shift.

“We don’t ever want to be flat-footed,” he said. “Even when something looks like it’s a little more west, you know, things can change, and so it’s very important for us as a city … to have the ability to adapt if we have to.”

Free sandbag stations were positioned across New Orleans, and drive-through coronavirus testing was canceled as the National Guard mobilized to respond to Delta elsewhere.

In areas outside the city’s protective levee system, warnings of the potential for a six-foot storm surge prompted Cantrell to order a voluntary evacuation. Inside the levee system, New Orleans remained the temporary home of some 6,100 evacuees from Hurricane Laura, she said.

“We have seen an active hurricane season already, with a devastating hit in Southwest Louisiana from Hurricane Laura,” Edwards said in a news release Tuesday. “It would be a mistake for anyone in Louisiana to let down their guard. Be prepared.”

The Coast Guard has surged people and equipment to the region, and it plans to use Houston and New Orleans as its major bases to respond, said Vice Adm. Steven Poulin, the service’s Atlantic-area commander. The service has been preparing for the past few days, staging aircraft and deploying shallow-water response teams that could help if there is major flooding.

“There is always uncertainty with these storm tracks. But the projections for this storm have been in pretty good consensus and been in consensus for the last few days for an impact in Cameron, Louisiana,” Poulin told The Washington Post. “The strength of the storm is just something we’re going to monitor.”

The Louisiana National Guard has pre-positioned 114 high-water vehicles, 56 boats and eight aircraft to provide search-and-rescue support, said Maj. Noel Collins, a National Guard spokeswoman. An additional 16 aircraft have been placed on standby.

On Grand Isle, La., a barrier island on the southeastern tip of the state that also has an evacuation order, the National Guard also has placed 360 “super-sacks,” large sandbags that bolster berms in the face of storm surge, Collins said.

In Lafayette Parish, schools were closed for the rest of the week, with a parish-wide curfew set to begin at noon on Friday. Officials encouraged those living in low-lying areas to voluntarily evacuate. Lafayette’s Festivals Acadiens et Créoles — a yearly gathering billed as the world’s largest Cajun and Creole festival, which was slated to be held virtually this year — was postponed by a week.

Lamothe reported from Lake Charles, La., and Houston. Cusick reported from New Orleans and Cappucci reported from Washington. Jason Samenow in Washington contributed to this report.

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