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Residents in Hurricane Laura's Path Prepare for Worst

Skyler Lawson, 4, holds her mask as she waits with her family to board buses to evacuate Lake Charles, La., Aug. 26, 2020, ahead of Hurricane Laura.
Skyler Lawson, 4, holds her mask as she waits with her family to board buses to evacuate Lake Charles, La., Aug. 26, 2020, ahead of Hurricane Laura.

Under normal circumstances, Brandon Legnion is a physical therapy technician in Lake Charles, Louisiana. But as of Wednesday, he's one of nearly 11,500 Louisiana National Guardsmen preparing to respond to what many experts are predicting could be the catastrophic effects of a direct hit by Hurricane Laura.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards activated the state's entire National Guard force ahead of Laura's landfall.

"I'm fully expecting Lake Charles to be devastated by this," Legnion told VOA before comparing this storm to Hurricane Rita in 2005. "The damage was really bad back then, and that was just a Category 3 when it hit. But Laura's supposed to reach us as a Category 4. So, yeah, I'm really worried."

The hurricane's winds have been reported near 235 kilometers per hour, and Laura was expected to hit the city between midnight and early Thursday.

The National Hurricane Center warned of an "unsurvivable" storm surge with large and destructive waves that "will cause catastrophic damage." Meteorologist Benjamin Schott of the National Weather Service said at a Wednesday news conference that there could be a "wall of water over two stories high coming on shore."

"Most everyone I know evacuated, so that's the good news," Legnion said. In fact, officials in Louisiana and Texas have ordered more than a half-million of the states' residents to evacuate in advance of the storm.

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But Legnion said his real worry now is property damage. He said that, thanks to the lake on the edge of the city, he heard downtown may receive nearly 3 meters of water.

"All day today you just saw people stuffing their cars with their most valuable possessions," he said, "but you can't fit everything."

A familiar foe

While the storm is expected to make landfall near the Louisiana-Texas border, officials estimate nearly 20 million Americans are in the storm's path.

In Lafayette, Louisiana – 120 kilometers east of Lake Charles – preparations were less urgent, but residents still spent the day dutifully readying for the newest in what feels to some Louisianians like a constant parade of storms.

"Anyone living near the Gulf Coast has had experience dealing with a hurricane," Chef Jeremy Conner, owner of Spoonbill Watering Hole & Restaurant, said.

Conner said he spent the last two days getting his home and business in order. That included bringing inside anything that might fly away in high winds, moving valuables away from vulnerable windows, buying supplies in case of a power outage, and boarding up windows. And he said most of Lafayette was doing the same.

"A lot of people even have their plywood boards cut and numbered in advance," he explains. "You just take it out of storage and pop it into the corresponding window. It's basically a habit at this point. When someone says 'hurricane' – which seems to be happening more and more this time of year – you know what to do."

Inland about 160 kilometers, Delphine Hammer said she isn't worried about her home in the small city of Alexandria. She's seen enough storms like this, however, to be prepared for anything, she added.

"We put a few sandbags in front of our doors, and boarded up a few windows, because you've got to be ready," she said. "But I think we're going to be OK. It's Lake Charles I'm really worried for."

This one feels different

Like seemingly everything this year, the coronavirus pandemic makes even the most familiar feel foreign.

"It just makes everything you do more complicated," Megan Chriss of Breaux Bridge, near Lafayette, said. "Are people supposed to evacuate on a crowded bus? How does that work with a contagious virus? Will hotels at 25% capacity let you in if you leave town? We don't know."

But in Lake Charles, which hasn't been hit hard by a hurricane in 15 years, Legnion said it isn't just the coronavirus that makes this storm feel different. It's also the severity of what seems more and more like an inevitable disaster.

"I think last week when they were reporting two tropical storms forming at once in the Gulf of Mexico, most of us were joking about it," he said with a laugh. "Kind of like, 'Oh boy, as if 2020 couldn't get any worse!' But now we're taking it seriously."

He said it wasn't easy to convince some of the older members of his family to evacuate, but they eventually agreed, as reports of Laura's severity grew more dire.

But Legnion said that didn't surprise him.

"People that call this place home love it here and they want to stay and protect it,” he said. “But what gives me hope is that if they can't protect it from a storm, they're going to be back as soon as they're allowed so they can build it back up from scratch. I have faith in the people down here because they bounce back."