In a Wednesday afternoon update on the quickly approaching Hurricane Laura, Gov. Greg Abbott said that southeast Texas should start to feel heavy winds “around 7 p.m. tonight” before the hurricane makes landfall “around 1 a.m.” in the wee hours of Thursday morning, and that the storm should blow through the state relatively quickly. “We do anticipate the storm being out of Texas by tomorrow night,” he said.
In advance of Laura’s arrival, both Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Fort Bend County Judge KP George formally issued disaster declarations for their counties on Wednesday morning so that disaster funds allocated to counties identified by the state can start flowing freely. On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott added an additional 36 counties to the 23 previously covered by his state disaster declaration in advance of the storm, and the governor added an additional three counties on Wednesday.
Thanks to further eastern movement since Tuesday afternoon, Houston is now outside of the National Hurricane Center’s forecast cone of where Hurricane Laura is expected to make landfall. In a Wednesday morning storm update, Space City Weather’s Eric Berger wrote that “it is now clear the Houston-Galveston metro area will escape the worst of what is a powerful Hurricane Laura.”
Berger said that while the Houston area will still likely see some inclement weather Wednesday afternoon and night, the local impact of Laura will be “nothing like the Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Southwestern Louisiana areas” are predicted to experience. Meteorologists are still expecting heavy storm surge and hurricane-force winds along the coast near the Texas-Louisiana border when Laura makes landfall as at least a category 3 hurricane late Wednesday night.
“Unsurvivable storm surge with large and destructive waves will cause catastrophic damage from Sea Rim State Park, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana, including Calcasieu and Sabine Lakes. This storm surge could penetrate up to 30 miles inland from the immediate coastline in southwestern Louisiana and far southeastern Texas,” said the National Hurricane Center in a Wednesday morning update.
Abbott said that the state has helped facilitate bus travel for residents from the southeast Texas coast who are under evacuation orders to state shelters in San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin, and explained that over 225,000 hotel rooms across the state are available to provide shelters for those fleeing the storm. A total of 400 buses provided by the state have already brought 5,000 Texans away from the coast and into shelter facilities in central Texas, Abbott said.
More than half a million people live in areas under mandatory evacuation orders along the Gulf Coast for Galveston, Port Arthur and Beaumont and for southwest Louisiana’s Calcasieu Parish, which represents the biggest evacuation undertaken in America during the COVID-19 pandemic according to the Associated Press.
The American Red Cross has been monitoring Hurricane Laura closely and will be able to mobilize volunteers and stand-up temporary shelter facilities in the Houston area at a moment’s notice should the need arise, said Ekland Durousseau, Regional Communications Manager for the Red Cross’s Texas Gulf Coast Region. “Even though the storm is unpredictable, we know that there are certain services we always want to provide to the community. There are certain areas where you could have a ten-minute hard rain and you could have some flash flooding that would negatively impact the community, so the Red Cross is always there to respond,” Durousseau said.
Durousseau explained that in contrast to previous disasters, any Red Cross shelters set up for Hurricane Laura victims will have a maximum capacity of 50 people in order to comply with social distancing recommendations in light of COVID-19. Everyone who enters a facility operated by the Red Cross will undergo a health screening and will be required to wear face masks, Durousseau said.
Other local organizations that operate shelters have been reacting in real time to Hurricane Laura. Both of Star of Hope’s homeless shelters are currently at capacity according to a statement from public relations director Scott Arthu, but despite that, Star of Hope has sent outreach teams to tell homeless Houston residents that there's a hurricane on the way, and to share info about other shelters that are open, Arthur said.
Salvation Army of Greater Houston spokesperson Mageida Sopon told the Houston Press that the Salvation Army is opening a temporary disaster shelter at its Temple Corps facility at 4516 Irvington Boulevard that can house up to 50 people if needed. In addition to securing extra food and water, the Houston Area Women’s Center has added extra staff in recent days to meet the needs of the victims of domestic violence they serve ahead of the hurricane, said HAWC spokesperson Chau Nguyen. Since COVID-19 has already required HAWC to shift their supportive services to virtual delivery, it is ready to continue operating virtually if Houston ends up getting hit harder by Laura than expected. “Our operations will remain intact,” said Nguyen.
Many local universities have preemptively announced closures for at least Wednesday and Thursday as Houston area residents sit with fingers crossed that our region will be spared from the worst of Laura’s wrath. On Tuesday, Rice University announced it would close campus and cancel classes from 5 p.m. Wednesday through Thursday. The University of Houston has shifted all instruction online Wednesday through Friday, while the University of Houston-Downtown has cancelled all classes through the end of the week.
While Houston Independent School District’s school year is yet to begin thanks to a COVID-19 inspired delay, planned on-campus teacher development activities for this week have been postponed, and all of the district’s scheduled food distributions for Thursday and Friday have been cancelled.