(CN) — As daybreak came Thursday and Hurricane Laura downgraded from a potentially catastrophic Category 4 to a menacing Category 2 storm traveling inland with 100 mph winds, residents along the Texas-Louisiana border who did not evacuate began to take stock of damages.
“Well the worst is over and we are safe,” Trent Gremillion, a historian in Lake Charles, Louisiana, texted Courthouse News shortly before first light.
“Can’t say the same for our house,” Gremillion added. “The pecan tree in our backyard fell on the east side of our home. It also appears to be laying on top of all three vehicles. We’ve spent the last two hours trying to stop all the water pouring through the multiple holes in the roof.”
Images of tall buildings in downtown Lake Charles surfaced on social media and YouTube showing dozens of windows broken out and power towers wrenched in half by the wind. A commenter on Twitter mentioned the sheets of glass that fell over the downtown streets as the windows blew through, sending shattered glass everywhere.
“The damage is pretty intensive,” a narrator on one YouTube video said of the destruction in downtown Lake Charles. “It got blown out. Wow, that’s amazing… looks like there’s water. No idea how deep it is.”
While the narrator, who stood on a parking garage as he filmed, said he could not tell exactly which portions of the city were underwater, he said the Interstate-10 bridge looked to be submerged.
“What a mess!” Lake Charles resident John Chav texted Courthouse News on Thursday morning. “Took several trees to the roof, chasing leaks, tree on my truck and trailer. What a mess!”
Hundreds of thousands of residents were ordered to evacuate from the region in advance of the storm, but not everyone decided to go.
“We know anyone that stayed that close to the coast, we’ve got to pray for them, because looking at the storm surge, there would be little chance of survival,” Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
As of Thursday afternoon, four people in Louisiana had died from trees falling on their homes. None of them lived on the coast, according to Governor John Bel Edwards.
U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette told reporters Thursday afternoon his department was monitoring a chemical fire that broke out near Lake Charles and was ready to assist with “specialized technicians” should Governor Edwards request the department’s help.
The fire was the result of a chemical spill at the BioLab chlorine plant in Lake Charles that specializes in pool chemicals. The fire caused thick, black, billowing smoke that wasn’t noticed until around daybreak Thursday morning.
Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality workers did not immediately detect chlorine with their handheld devices, agency spokesman Greg Langley told the Associated Press. Authorities ordered residents near the industrial plant to stay in their homes with the doors and windows closed, and I-10 was closed so traffic could be diverted from the area. Emergency crews had a hard time clearing a path through wreckage from Laura to get to the site of the spill.
“Finding a way into it was a bit of a challenge, but they got there,” Langley said.
Brouillette said officials were “cautiously optimistic” after what he stressed were initial assessments of the many oil refineries, plants and other industrial facilities in the regions of Texas and Louisiana affected by the hurricane.
“There is some damage to some of the facilities, but it appears to be somewhat light, it is not significant in nature,” Brouillette said. “Meaning that the operations of these facilities will probably continue in very short order.”
About 13% of the nation’s oil refining capacity was taken offline as facilities shut-in their operations ahead of the storm, according to an Energy Department briefing released Thursday, while more than 80% of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico was halted.
Still, Brouillette said a major pipeline that delivers gasoline to the Northeast from the Gulf Coast appeared to have survived the storm unscathed.
“We shouldn’t see too much in terms of shortages,” he said.
Nearly 600,000 homes and businesses in Texas and Louisiana were without power during and after the storm.
In 2005, the region was devastated by Hurricane Rita, which went down in history as the most intense tropical cyclone on record in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We stayed through Rita in 2005,” Gremillion texted Wednesday just before 9 p.m. “I pray this storm is not on the same scale of devastation.”
Another Lake Charles resident, a nurse who spent the night at a hospital, said she was still trying to get back to her house Thursday morning.
“There are some people still in town, and people are calling… but there ain’t no way to get to them,” Tony Guillory, president of the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, the parish’s governing body, told an Associated Press reporter from a Lake Charles government building Thursday.
Guillory added that he hoped stranded people could be rescued later in the day, but he worried that downed power lines, blocked roads and floodwaters could get in the way.
Laura made landfall just after 1 a.m. Thursday as a powerful Category 4 with 150 mph winds near Cameron, Louisiana, just west of the Texas-Louisiana border and south of Lake Charles, across Calcasieu Lake, an inlet to the Gulf of Mexico.
The hurricane brought with it a storm surge that was estimated to reach 20 feet. Although winds weakened as it moved inland, heavy rains, strong winds and warnings of tornados throughout the Gulf region continued.
New Orleans, 300 miles to the east, issued notice of possible tornados until late Thursday afternoon as well as dangerous storm surge in Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain.
Some flooding and damage was reported the Texas side of the border, but it appeared that Beaumont and Houston had not experienced near the same devastation as previous storms, such as Rita or Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott said Thursday on NBC’s “Today” that the Lone Star State had reported no fatalities so far but also said emergency workers were “still going through the ravages of the storm.”
“We had well over 5,000, maybe up to 10,000 people who did evacuate, especially around those regions where the hurricane came across shore,” Abbott said. “I have no doubt that because of the evacuations that did take place, that reduced the loss of life.”
“This is, unfortunately, not our first rodeo in dealing with something like this,” the governor added. “We are not yet out of the woods.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Beaumont had the feeling of a city preparing for a siege. Almost all businesses, with the exception of a few gas stations, remained open until about 1 p.m. Plywood covering windows and doors was the norm rather than exception. Traffic had largely disappeared, even more so as a dusk to dawn curfew was put in effect.
Those that remained braced themselves for what could be one of the most devastating storms in U.S. history. But as the storm moved inland through the night and into the early morning, Beaumont residents largely breathed a sigh of relief.
Branches were broken but trees stood. Shingles may have cracked, but roofs remained squarely in place. Although the night was punctuated with the bright flashes of transformers, the tropical storm force winds largely served as a reminder of how much worse it could have been in the area.
Courthouse News reporter Travis Bubenik and researcher Patrick Wood contributed to this report.