One of the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the US has pounded the Gulf Coast with wind and rain, unleashing a fearsome wall of sea water and killing at least four people.
Louisiana took the brunt of the damage when the Category 4 storm barrelled over Lake Charles, an industrial and casino city of 80,000 people.
Laura’s powerful gusts blew out windows in tall buildings and tossed around glass and debris. Police spotted a floating casino that came unmoored and hit a bridge.
Drone video showed water surrounding homes with much of their roofs peeled away. A 14-year-old girl and a 68-year-old man died were among the four people killed when trees fell on their homes, authorities said.
The hurricane’s top wind speed of 150 mph put it among the most powerful systems on record in the US Not until 11 hours after landfall did Laura finally weaken into a tropical storm as it churned toward Arkansas.
“It looks like 1,000 tornadoes went through here. It’s just destruction everywhere,” said Brett Geymann, who rode out the storm with three family members in Moss Bluff, near Lake Charles. He described Laura passing over his house with the roar of a jet engine at around 2am.
“There are houses that are totally gone. They were there yesterday, but now gone,” he said.
Daybreak offered the first glimpse of the destruction as a massive plume of smoke began rising over Lake Charles, where authorities responded to a chlorine leak at a chemical plant.
Police said the leak was at a facility run by Biolab, which manufactures chemicals used in household cleaners.
Nearby residents were told to close their doors and windows and turn off air conditioners.
Elsewhere, initial reports offered hope that the destruction might be somewhat less than originally feared, but a full damage assessment could take days. Wind and rain blew too hard for authorities to check for survivors in some hard-hit places.
Hundreds of thousands of people were ordered to evacuate ahead of the hurricane, but not everyone fled from the area, which was devastated by Hurricane Rita in 2005.
“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 said over the phone from a Lake Charles government building that was shaking from the storm.
Mr Guillory said he hoped the stranded people could be rescued later in the day, but he feared that blocked roads, downed power lines and floodwaters could get in the way.
“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.
More than 700,000 homes and businesses were without power in Louisiana and Texas, according to the website PowerOutage.Us, which tracks utility reports.
Forecasters had warned that the storm surge of 15 to 20 feet would be “unsurvivable” and could push 40 miles inland.
They expected “catastrophic” damage along a stretch of coast from Lake Charles to Port Arthur, Texas. Damaging winds extended outward as far as 175 miles, according to the hurricane centre.