GALVE­STON, Texas — In the largest U.S. evac­u­a­tion of the pan­demic, more than half a mil­lion peo­ple were or­dered to flee the Gulf Coast on Tues­day as Laura strength­ened into a hur­ri­cane that fore­cast­ers said could slam Texas and Louisiana with fe­ro­cious winds, heavy flood­ing and the power to push sea­wa­ter miles in­land.

More than 385,000 res­i­dents were told to flee the Texas cities of Beau­mont, Galve­ston and Port Arthur, and an­other 200,000 were or­dered to leave low-ly­ing Cal­casieu Par­ish in south­west­ern Louisiana, where fore­cast­ers said as much as 13 feet of storm surge topped by waves could sub­merge whole com­mu­ni­ties.

The Na­tional Hur­ri­cane Cen­ter pro­jected that Laura would draw en­ergy from warm Gulf waters and be­come a Cat­e­gory 3 hur­ri­cane be­fore mak­ing land­fall late Wed­nes­day or early Thurs­day, with winds of around 115 mph. The strength­en­ing may slow or stop just be­fore land­fall, fore­cast­ers said.

“The waters are warm enough ev­ery­where there to sup­port a ma­jor hur­ri­cane, Cat­e­gory 3 or even higher. The waters are very warm where the storm is now and will be for the en­tire path up un­til the Gulf Coast,” Na­tional Hur­ri­cane Cen­ter Deputy Di­rec­tor Ed Rap­pa­port said.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Ed­wards said Laura is shap­ing up to look a lot like Hur­ri­cane Rita did 15 years ago when it rav­aged south­west Louisiana.

“We’re go­ing to have sig­nif­i­cant flood­ing in places that don’t nor­mally see it,” he said.

Ocean wa­ter was ex­pected to push onto land along more than 450 miles of coast from Texas to Mis­sis­sippi. Hur­ri­cane warn­ings were is­sued from San Luis Pass, Texas, to In­tra­coastal City, Louisiana, and storm surge warn­ings from the Port Arthur, Texas, flood pro­tec­tion sys­tem to the mouth of the Mis­sis­sippi River.

The evac­u­a­tions could get even big­ger if the storm’s track veers to the east or west, said Craig Fu­gate, the for­mer head of the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency.

Fear­ing that peo­ple would not evac­u­ate in time, Ed­wards said those in south­west Louisiana need to be where they in­tend to ride out Laura by noon Wed­nes­day, when the state will start feel­ing the storm’s ef­fects.

Of­fi­cials urged peo­ple to stay with rel­a­tives or in ho­tel rooms to avoid spread­ing the virus that causes COVID-19. Buses were stocked with pro­tec­tive equip­ment and dis­in­fec­tant, and they would carry fewer pas­sen­gers to keep peo­ple apart, Texas of­fi­cials said.

Whit­ney Fra­zier, 29, of Beau­mont spent Tues­day morn­ing try­ing to get trans­porta­tion to a high school where she could board a bus to leave the area.

“Es­pe­cially with ev­ery­thing with COVID go­ing on al­ready on top of a manda­tory evac­u­a­tion, it’s very stress­ful,” Fra­zier said.

The storm also im­per­iled a cen­ter of the U.S. en­ergy in­dus­try. The gov­ern­ment said 84% of Gulf oil pro­duc­tion and an es­ti­mated 61% of nat­u­ral gas pro­duc­tion were shut down. Nearly 300 plat­forms have been evac­u­ated.

While oil prices of­ten spike be­fore a ma­jor storm as pro­duc­tion slows, con­sumers are un­likely to see big price changes be­cause the pan­demic dec­i­mated de­mand for fuel.


Gigi Hlavink buys gas cans and other sup­plies Tues­day at a Home De­pot store in Hous­ton while pre­par­ing for the pos­si­ble land­fall of Hur­ri­cane Laura in Hous­ton.

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