Hurricane Laura Live Updates: Powerful Category 4 Storm Nears Coast

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Between the city and the coast lies mostly treeless marshland, which, most dangerously, is cut through with shipping channels that lead directly in from the Gulf. With a storm surge predicted to be as high as 20 feet, these channels “provide conduits like a hose going in,” said Paul Kemp, a professor of coastal sciences at Louisiana State University.

A city of nearly 80,000, Lake Charles is fueled primarily by the petrochemical industry. Its namesake was once a freshwater lake but is now, because of saltwater influx from the Gulf, essentially a brackish inlet of the ocean.

Refineries sit within sight of downtown, though the city is also known in the region for its casinos, including a 26 story hotel-casino that sits next to a golf course. It is the industry and recreational hub of southwestern Louisiana and a gateway to Texas.

The place expected to take the first direct hit from Hurricane Laura, coastal Cameron Parish, has been repeatedly devastated by hurricanes, Rita and Ike most recently. A wide swath of marsh and farmland, it has a faction of the population it once had.

The vulnerability has gotten worse over time. For decades, saltwater has steadily crept inland all along the coast, through these shipping channels and coastal erosion, turning freshwater lakes brackish and killing trees that once offered protection from big storms.

The kind of storm surge that Laura is forecast to bring, which builds up easily over the Gulf’s relatively shallow continental shelf, could reach as far as 40 miles inland, forecasters said.

“You’ve got all these things coming together, and then adding insult to injury, this storm is big,” said Jamie Rhome, who oversees the storm surge forecast unit at the National Hurricane Center. “Big storms push harder, exert more force than little storms of the same intensity.”

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