Hurricane Laura’s path almost identical to Rita’s in 2005, but devastation may be worse

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Hurricane Laura is following an eerily similar path to Hurricane Rita in 2005 — a storm that had a devastating impact on Texas and Louisiana. Hurricane Laura’s intensity at landfall mean this storm could be even more catastrophic, as Rita was Category 3 hurricane with winds of 115 mph at landfall and Laura was a strong Category 4, with wind gusts as high as 150 mph and a storm surge in excess of 20 feet.

Major U.S. hurricane landfalls from 2001-2010 – Hurricane Laura is following the path of Rita in 2005

So what impact will Hurricane Laura have in East Texas and Louisiana? Sadly, worse destruction than from Hurricane Rita is possible, and here is what the National Hurricane Center wrote in the after-storm report on that storm:

Despite having weakened, Rita was still a large Category 3 hurricane at landfall and produced a very significant storm surge in southwestern Louisiana, an area very vulnerable to surge. Since so many structures were completely destroyed, and because many gages failed up to several hours before the center of the hurricane crossed the coast, measuring the storm surge has been a daunting task. Only a few high water marks have been collected and analyzed under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). These data along with unofficial visual estimates suggest that the storm surge in portions of the Cameron, Louisiana area was as high as about 15 ft. Water was also pushed into Calcasieu Lake, flooding portions of communities along its shoreline, such as Grand Lake, with a storm surge of at least about 8 ft.

Hurricane Rita after landfall in 2005 (NOAA)

The surge then propagated up the Calcasieu River and flooded portions of the Lake Charles area, where in several locations the surge reached Interstate 10 (about 25 n mi from the Gulf coast). Flood waters in downtown Lake Charles were as deep as about 6 ft in some places. Farther east, most or all of Vermillion, Iberia, and St. Mary Parishes south of Highway 14 and U. S. 90 (several miles inland) were inundated by the storm surge, visually estimated at 8- 7 12 ft in some of these areas; a high water mark of nearly 12 ft was also observed in western St. Mary Parish near the town of Louisa. The water crossed these highways in numerous locations and was 3 to 6 ft deep in many homes.

Rita also produced storm surge, generally 4-7 ft based on gage data and a high water mark observation, in coastal areas of southeastern Louisiana, flooding some areas that had already been impacted by the surge from Hurricane Katrina about one month earlier. Some flooding was also reported along Lake Pontchartrain in Slidell and Mandeville. Some local drainage levees in southern Jefferson and southern Terrebonne Parishes were overtopped or breached, as were a few repaired levees in the New Orleans area. While the additional flooding was not as extensive as during Katrina, it contributed to prolonging the efforts, which lasted until early October, to remove all floodwaters from the New Orleans area. Just west of the landfall location of the circulation center, incomplete gage data suggest a storm surge of at least 5 ft occurred at Sabine Pass.

Gages that survived the event farther north along Sabine Lake measured peak water levels of about 4-5 ft. Storm tides measured at gages along much of the Texas coast were generally in the 3-5 foot range, and most of these peaks occurred during the day on 23 September (the day prior to landfall). Some flooding occurred later on 24 September after landfall of Rita’s center along the northern shores of Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula, as northerly winds pushed waters of Galveston Bay southward. Sustained winds of tropical storm force produced by Rita also resulted in a surge of about 1.5 ft on Lake Livingston, located in southeastern Texas about 60 miles north of Houston and about 50 miles west of the path of the center of the storm.

Rita also produced storm surge in the Florida Keys while its center passed just south of the island chain on 20 September. Visual storm tide estimates suggest the maximum storm surge in the Keys might have been about 4-5 ft along the south-facing shores of Key West and the remaining lower Keys, and 3-4 ft along portions of the Atlantic shores of the middle and upper Keys. The surge flooded the runway at Key West International Airport, and it penetrated up to about four blocks inland along streets in Key West that were flooded to depths of about three ft. Storm total rainfall in the lower and middle Florida Keys was generally 2-4 in, with greater than 6 in estimated by radar in portions of the Upper Keys. A few storm total amounts exceeding 3 in were reported over the extreme southern Florida peninsula. Rita also produced very heavy rains in many portions of Mississippi, Louisiana, and extreme eastern Texas. Storm total amounts of 5-9 in were common in these areas, with some isolated maxima of 10-15 in.

Flash floods occurred in several areas, including the Big Black River basin of west-central Mississippi. Several cities reported flooded streets due to heavy rains. Portions of Arkansas received 3-6 in of rain from Rita. At least 90 tornadoes were reported in association with Rita, mainly to the north and east of the circulation center in portions of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Rita produced the most tornadoes (56) in a single event (of 48 h or less in duration) ever recorded in the area of responsibility of the Jackson, Mississippi NWS forecast office (which also includes portions of northeastern Louisiana and extreme southeastern Arkansas). Eleven tornadoes were reported in other portions of Arkansas, and 23 tornadoes were reported in Alabama.

The approach of Rita provoked one the largest evacuations in U. S. history. Media reports indicate that the number of evacuees in Texas could have exceeded two million. Additional evacuations involving smaller numbers took place in Louisiana. Seven fatalities have been directly attributed to the forces of Rita. One was due to drowning near Lake Charles, Louisiana; two people died in Hardin, Texas when a tree was blown down onto their home; one person died when a tree fell on her home in Point Blank, Texas; another person was killed by a falling tree in Angelina County, Texas; one person was killed in a tornado near Isola, Mississippi; and one person drowned in a rip current at Miramar Beach in the Florida panhandle on 24 September.

At least 55 “indirect” fatalities have been reported in Texas. Six of these occurred in Beaumont due to carbon monoxide poisoning. A bus accident south of Dallas during the course of the evacuation killed more than 20 persons, mostly elderly evacuees from a nursing home. Other persons died during the evacuation due to heat exhaustion.

The storm surge of Rita devastated entire communities in coastal areas of southwestern Louisiana, including Holly Beach, Cameron, Creole, and Grand Cheniere in Cameron Parish. Almost every structure in these areas was destroyed, and some were completely swept away. Severe beach erosion occurred at Holly Beach. Several miles inland from the Gulf along Calcasieu Lake, numerous homes in the town of Grand Lake were damaged or destroyed. Many portions of the Lake Charles area suffered substantial flood damage, including downtown and some surrounding residential communities.

In Vermillion Parish, dozens of homes and businesses were flooded and damaged by storm surge, and most structures in the town of Pecan Island were destroyed. Storm surge damage to homes and businesses in low-lying areas extended eastward along the entire coast of Louisiana, although the impact in the New Orleans area was not nearly as widespread as during Hurricane Katrina. In Jefferson County, Texas, west of where the center made landfall and adjacent to Sabine Lake, the storm surge flooded several homes, and some mobile homes floated away from their original locations.

The surge on Lake Livingston in southeastern Texas caused some damage to the Lake Livingston Dam. Rita also caused some damage to homes and businesses due to storm surge in portions of the Florida Keys. Rita’s winds, tornadoes, and fresh water floods caused damage to many other homes and businesses over a large area including portions of Louisiana, eastern Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and the Florida Keys.

Rita caused wide swaths of downed trees and power lines, leaving well over one million customers in these areas without electrical service, some for days or even weeks. Oil and gas production and refining in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico region was disrupted by Rita (largely due to evacuations), but the impacts were not as severe as those farther east due to Hurricane Katrina.

The most recent available estimate by the American Insurance Services Group of the insured property damage in the United States caused by Rita is $5.627 billion. Doubling this figure to account for uninsured losses and adding the $783 million in insured losses from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), yields a rough estimate for total damage of about $12.037 billion.

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