Infraread satellite image
Infrared satellite view of Hurricane Laura at 8:41 a.m. EDT Wednesday, August 26, 2020. Laura had just been upgraded to a category 3 hurricane with 115 mph winds. (Image credit: University of Wisconsin/CIMSS)

Hurricane Laura powered its way to major hurricane status overnight, putting on an impressive display of rapid intensification over the very warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Laura is headed towards a landfall expected Wednesday night or early Thursday morning in northeastern Texas or western Louisiana as a major category 4 hurricane, and is expected to cause “catastrophic” wind and storm surge damage, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). Rain squalls from Laura’s outer spiral bands were already affecting the coasts of Texas and Louisiana on Wednesday morning, and they will increase in intensity throughout the day.

Laura rapidly intensified by an impressive 50 mph in the 24 hours ending at 11 a.m. EDT Wednesday, with the winds rising from 75 mph to 125 mph and the pressure falling from 990 mb to 956 mb. This far exceeds the definition of rapid intensification, which is a 24 mb drop in 24 hours. Buoy 42395, located just east of Laura’s eye on Wednesday morning, reported sustained winds of up to 76 mph, wind gusts as high as 107 mph, and a wave height of 37 feet (11 meters).

At 11 a.m. EDT Wednesday, Laura was already generating a storm surge of 1 – 3 feet along much of the Texas and Louisiana coasts; the largest surges, between 2.5 – 3 feet, were at Shell Beach, Louisiana, located to the southeast of New Orleans, and Freshwater Canal Locks, on the south-central coast of Louisiana. Laura’s storm surge can be tracked using the Trabus Technologies Storm Surge Live Tracker or the NOAA Tides and Currents page for Laura.

Satellite image
Figure 1. Visible GOES-16 satellite image of Hurricane Laura at 9:30 a.m. EDT Wednesday, August 26. (Image credit: NOAA/RAMMB)

Laura continues to rapidly intensify

At 11 a.m. EDT Wednesday, Laura was located over the waters of the central Gulf of Mexico, about 235 miles southeast of Galveston, Texas. These waters were a very warm 30 degrees Celsius (86°F). Laura was headed northwest at 15 mph with top sustained winds of 125 mph and a central pressure of 956 mb, putting it just 5 mph below category 4 strength.

Satellite images and data from the Hurricane Hunters showed that Laura has closed off a large eye about 30 miles in diameter. Intense thunderstorms with very cold cloud tops surrounded the eye and extended high into the atmosphere. The eye had not yet fully cleared out, which likely will occur by Wednesday afternoon as the hurricane continues to intensify.

High-level cirrus clouds were streaming out to the east and south of Laura, indicating good upper-level outflow on that side. Upper-level outflow was steadily improving to the north and west, showing that Laura was establishing a second outflow channel that connected up with the trough of low pressure over the central U.S. This improved outflow structure will help Laura intensify further on Wednesday afternoon. Laura was embedded in a moderately dry region of the atmosphere, with a mid-level relative humidity of 60%, but this dry air was not hindering the hurricane anymore, as the moderate wind shear of 10 – 15 knots affecting the storm was not high enough to drive the dry air into the well-developed inner core.

Figure 2
Figure 2. The 6Z Wednesday, August 26, 2020 forecast of the HWRF model, which successfully predicted Laura’s rapid intensification in previous runs. The model predicted a landfall around midnight Wednesday in western Louisiana as a category 4 hurricane with 140 mph winds and a central pressure of 937 mb. (Image credit: Tropical Tidbits)

Landfall near the Texas/Louisiana border imminent

There’s not much mystery on where Laura is going. The hurricane has made its expected turn to the northwest, and is headed toward a landfall near the Texas/Louisiana border around midnight Wednesday night. After landfall, Laura will turn to the north, following steering currents from a trough of low pressure over the central U.S. The rapidly weakening storm will then turn to the east on Friday, passing through the Tennessee Valley on its way to the mid-Atlantic coast, where it will move out to sea by Sunday.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Predicted wind threat from Hurricane Laura. (Image credit: National Weather Service Southern Region)

Intensification expected until just before landfall

Ocean temperatures are a very warm 30 degrees Celsius (86°F), and Laura will be passing over Gulf waters with very high heat content on Wednesday. Conditions for intensification will be very favorable until four to six hours before landfall, when strong upper-level winds from the trough of low-pressure steering Laura will bring a high 20 – 25 knots of wind shear and likely halt the intensification process. Interaction with land may also slow intensification at that time. Data from the Hurricane Hunters late Wednesday morning showed that Laura might be starting to develop concentric eyewalls, a process common in intense hurricanes, which leads to a temporary halt in intensification when the double eyewalls become fully developed. This process could slow down Laura’s intensification by Wednesday night. The top dynamical intensity models – the HWRF, HMON, and COAMPS -predicted in their 0Z and 6Z Wednesday runs that Laura would be a category 4 hurricane at landfall, with the 6Z COAMPS forecast calling for a category 5.

Laura a catastrophic storm surge threat

Figure 4
Figure 4. Predicted storm surge threat from Hurricane Laura. (Image credit: National Weather Service Southern Region)

Laura will drive a massive catastrophic storm surge to the coast, with the 11 a.m. EDT Wednesday NHC advisory calling for a peak surge of 15 – 20 feet along the western Louisiana coast. The magnitude of this storm surge will depend not only on how strong the winds are, the speed the storm is traveling, and the angle at which it approaches the coast, but also on the size of the storm. A large storm with winds blowing over a wide area of ocean will typically generate a higher storm surge that covers a larger area than a smaller hurricane.

The 11 a.m. EDT Wednesday NHC forecast called for Laura’s tropical storm-force winds to span a diameter of 220 nautical miles (nm) at landfall. For comparison, Hurricane Rita in 2005 – a low-end category 3 hurricane with 115 mph winds which drove a 10 – 15-foot storm surge to the southwest Louisiana coast – had tropical storm-force winds that spanned a diameter of 300 nm. Hurricane Ike in 2008 – a high-end category 2 hurricane with 110 mph winds that drove a storm surge of 15 – 20 feet to Texas’ Bolivar Peninsula – had a tropical storm-force wind field 390 nm across. (Thanks to’s Jon Erdman for this information) Given that Laura likely will be a much stronger storm than Rita at landfall, but smaller in areal size, a peak storm surge of 15 – 20 feet – larger than the 10 – 15-foot storm surge Rita brought to southwest Louisiana (see below) – is a reasonable forecast.

Inundation levels also will depend on whether Laura strikes at high or low tide. Tidal ranges are low in this part of the Gulf, however. The tidal range at Lake Charles, Louisiana is 1.5 feet, and high tide is at 6:09 a.m. CDT Thursday.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Holly Beach, Louisiana on November 16, 2005, after strong waves and storm surge currents from Hurricane Rita completely destroyed all 500 structures in the town and stripped away most of the vegetation, leaving deep scour channels parallel to the shoreline. Holly Beach was completely destroyed also in 1957 by the 12-foot storm surge of category 3 Hurricane Audrey. After both hurricanes, the town was partially rebuilt. (Image credit: Marvin Nauman/FEMA)
Figure 6
Figure 6. Simulated storm surge from Hurricane Rita of 2005, using water-level and barometric pressure data from sensors. (Image credit: USGS)

An impact greater than Hurricane Rita’s in 2005 likely

After peaking as a category 5 storm with 180 mph winds and a central pressure of 895 mb – the fourth lowest pressure ever measured for an Atlantic hurricane – Hurricane Rita weakened to a category 3 storm with 115 mph winds before making landfall in western Cameron Parish, Louisiana, near the Texas border, on September 24, 2005. Rita caused an estimated $25.2 billion in damage, making it the eleventh-costliest hurricane in U.S. history. Seven direct deaths were blamed on the storm, and the chaotic evacuation of Houston was blamed for 107 deaths.

Coastal storm surge When a hurricane threatens, don’t underestimate storm surge risk

The small town of Cameron (population 2,000 and elevation three feet) was the largest town along the stretch of southwest Louisiana coast that received Rita’s peak storm surge, estimated to be 10 – 15 feet. The storm surge destroyed 90% of the homes in Cameron, and destroyed all of the structures in Holly Beach (population 300), with the only human-made features remaining after the storm being power poles, concrete slabs, and roads. Rita’s surge penetrated more than 30 miles inland, reaching Interstate 10. The surge, combined with freshwater flooding, inundated downtown Lake Charles, located 30 miles from the ocean, up to six feet deep. Rita also produced a storm surge of 4 – 7 feet in coastal areas of southeastern Louisiana, flooding some spots that had already been impacted by the surge from Hurricane Katrina about one month earlier.

Posted August 26, 2020, at 12:35 p.m. EDT.

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Jeff Masters, Ph.D., worked as a hurricane scientist with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990. After a near-fatal flight into category 5 Hurricane Hugo, he left the Hurricane Hunters to pursue a...

569 replies on “Hurricane Laura intensifies; ‘catastrophic’ wind and storm surge expected”

  1. There is a pic during better days posted in the WU Disqus thread showing that really damaged skyscraper, and yes it is at least 50 stories tall (many said Chase Bank Bldg), and all of a sudden the minimizing troll there split the scene. Timmer’s car was facing it that he abandoned when the lower part of the bldg. was coming apart and blowing debris his way. Windows of that building were blown out way up the side too.

  2. For anyone at the old home to minimize Laura (as one in particular has been), and that be their ONLY focus, well that’s pretty low bar behavior to put it kindly. I hope anyone at the old blog reading the minimizer won’t take him seriously when trying to make decisions. We’ve always been about protecting people not misleading them.

    1. I fully support your comment
      We should all be done with idiots , downplaying risks, about climate and virus.
      Support science , NHC .
      And act to prevent this from worsening in the future

    2. I just jumped on this blog for a moment – but yesterday was interesting to read all the comments on other blog about whether would be a cat 4 or 5. I think that there were those who said it didn’t matter, it was “academic”, whatever that means etc. etc. and that it was a dangerous hurricane. It felt a little bit like trying to dumb people down by saying don’t worry about the distinction, it doesn’t matter. But for those who are interested in definitions and categories and such, it does matter, there is a difference, categories aren’t arbitrary. I felt some people were asking serious questions about scientific classifications, and then labelled as uncaring, or they wanted a cat 5… but for some you can question the differences and not feel “personally” or somehow mystically, I guess, responsible for something if you are just asking a question. I have no idea here what happened, but there is a difference between being a govt. employee with the mission (and paid to do so as well) to protect people, and others who are just intellectually curious who aren’t paid to pump out safety propaganda, in the positive sense.

  3. Cameron is again wiped out by all indications of the storm surge already reported there. Lake Charles will not be recognizable tomorrow. At best it will look like an EF-3 went through the city. We’re super far from being done with the extremes tonight and tomorrow morning too. Biggest surge yet to come in. Incredibly dangerous night for so many.

  4. Watching the Weather Channel, Steph’s on the steps apologizing for not being out in the hurricane, decides to take a couple steps down into the wind… and BOOF! Buncha debris crashes down around her. She scurried under shelter. God.
    Meanwhile, Cantore’s got a helmet on, out in it. Timmer’s feed is down now.

  5. with the collapsing eye and wind field expansion now beginning tornados in the dark is the next great threat

  6. According to NOAA Tides & Currents page, the water level at Calascieu Pass has crossed 10 feet, 8 feet above predicted tide, so 8 foot surge, so far…

  7. Brett Adair going to concrete shelter now he just said. Well I’ll be. Now that’s smart, brave move too with his reputation. Setting a good example. He was expecting more he just said. Oh my. Brett in an hour 125 sustained will be there. Dude.

  8. this Laura 013L was quite the performer tale will be told come first light

    long night ahead for many still

  9. Radar makes it look like there is a gap in the south wall. Or is that a density issue related to the north wall?

    1. could be local rad loss power outs or damage if any in area rads are overlay into each other as they go out u lose defined images

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