Louisiana was spared some of the worst-case storm surge and widespread flooding that forecasters said was likely from Hurricane Laura, state officials said Thursday, but the state is dealing with “tremendous damage” from winds and a host of lingering effects from the storm.

Among the problems is a riverboat casino that was jostled loose and got wedged under the Lake Charles bridge on Interstate 10, requiring inspections before the interstate reopens. Plus, more than 600,000 homes and businesses without power and a “chlorine gas chemical fire” at the BioLab plant in Westlake prompted Gov. John Bel Edwards to issue a shelter-at-home order for neighboring communities.

And the Louisiana Department of Health said at least 67 water systems are “inoperable,” meaning more than 200,000 people are potentially having trouble accessing clean water.

“We have a lot of work to do. But we are in a better shape today than might have been the case,” Edwards said, noting storm surge fell short of the 20-foot predictions for the coast.

“Today is about saving lives, moving people out of their homes if their homes aren’t safe or habitable.”

Four people had died from the storm, though Edwards warned that number could grow as thousands of local, state and federal officials fan out to do search and rescue, survey damage and restore water and power. It was also not clear how long power would be out for hundreds of thousands of people, with Edwards calling the restoration a “herculean task.”

In a visit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to monitor the storm, President Donald Trump said he planned to go to Louisiana and Texas very shortly – perhaps over the weekend.

The Category 4 Hurricane Laura made landfall as the most powerful storm to hit the Louisiana coast, Edwards said. Winds ripped up homes, businesses and power lines across southwest Louisiana.

EBR first responders heading to Lake Charles area after Laura's landfall; thousands without power

Forecasters believe part of the reason the storm surge didn’t hit the unprecedented levels that were predicted is because the eye of the storm tracked slightly to the east of forecasts. It didn’t ride up the Calcasieu Ship Channel, which could have caused more devastating storm surge.

“This storm did not bring the storm surge that was predicted,” said Chip Kline, head of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority board. “It would appear most of the damage that was inflicted on southwest louisiana was from wind.”

“If it had been 10-12 miles to the west lake charles would have had extremely serious inundation,” Steve Goldstein, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration’s liaison to FEMA, said on a conference call with reporters. “Just a little bit of turn, 10-12 miles here or there can make such a difference when it comes to surge.”

MaryAnn Tierney, a FEMA administrator who toured Calcasieu Parish Thursday, said she saw some standing water but no widespread damage from flooding.

State and federal officials said it was still too early to have a good grasp on how many homes were damaged or destroyed from the storm, but Tierney said there was “significant” damage to Calcasieu Parish, with a number of homes destroyed or damaged.

More than 600,000 homes and businesses were without power Thursday, Edwards said. And Amanda Ames, chief engineer at the Louisiana Department of Health, said some water systems took serious damage from the storm--a bigger problem than the state normally sees after storms. She compared the damage to water infrastructure to that seen after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

The Health Department reported 67 water systems were “inoperable,” meaning they were experiencing water outages. Those systems provide water to well over 200,000 people.

Some of the systems merely lost power and should be able to restore service once power is restored. But Ames said others took on “significant damage,” and she noted many of them provide water to hospitals and other critical customers.

68-year-old Iota man killed by falling tree during Hurricane Laura identified

The governor said storm surge appears to have hit at 9 to 11 feet, about half of the predictions of 18 to 20 feet. But he added on cable news shows Thursday morning that the wind was “every bit as advertised,” leading to extensive damage in parts of southwest Louisiana.

One small silver lining is that wind damage will likely not take as long, or cost as much, to fix as damage from widespread flooding, Edwards noted. He said people may not have to shelter for as long. More than 2,100 people were in shelters across the state Thursday, including 1,900 or so in hotels and motels and the rest in congregate shelters run by parishes.

Replay: John Bel Edwards gives update on Hurricane Laura damage

Transportation officials will do inspections of the I-10 bridge by drone to survey the damage done when the Isle of Capri casino got stuck underneath it, said Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson. The bridge must be deemed safe before I-10--the biggest and most important traffic artery for south Louisiana--reopens. But he noted the BioLab chemical fire could complicate the surveys.

The chemical fire was started when “product” at the plant began reacting as the storm hit, said State Police Superintendent Col. Kevin Reeves. The company’s crews were unable to put out the fire, which still raged Thursday afternoon as the governor spoke.

That fire released chlorine gas into the air, and environmental officials were monitoring the effects, Reeves said.

State Fire Marshal Butch Browning said much of the chlorine was falling into the lake.

“We don’t know everything there is to know about it,” Edwards said. “We have assumptions. … we know it’s a serious situation.”


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com