South Louisiana officials feared an “unsurvivable” storm surge from Hurricane Laura, but found Thursday the potentially deadly wall of water appeared to be less than expected as the Category 4 storm came ashore.
Hurricane Laura was projected to bring up to a 20-foot storm surge in Cameron Parish, and flood waters were expected as far as 40 miles inland. Those estimates prompted the National Hurricane Center to issue an advisory earlier this week warning of “unsurvivable storm surge with large and destructive waves.”
However, where the storm made landfall in Cameron Parish, the surge crested at about 9 feet, according to initial reports. That storm surge level is considered life-threatening because large items such as cars begin to float and water levels reach the tops of one-story buildings. But it wasn’t the level projected.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday morning the state “caught a break” on storm surge.
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National Hurricane Center storm surge specialist Jamie Rhome, however, told USA TODAY that the center’s “initial analysis indicate it (the surge) was as bad as feared in Cameron Parish.” The lower reading of 9 feet may have been on the far western side of the parish, not the east side, where the surge was higher, Rhome said.
“We don’t have any observations so it is premature to say the surge was ‘x’ feet,” he said. “Our ‘hindcast’ model analysis suggests the forecast of 10-20 feet (surge) verified, but east of Cameron, Louisiana.”
Laura’s storm surge still exceeded the all-time watermark in Cameron Parish, said Ryan Truchelut, co-founder and chief meteorologist at WeatherTiger.
In Iberia Parish, further east from Laura’s center where the storm surge was predicted to reach 9 feet, local officials said preliminary assessments suggest about three feet of storm surge in Delcambre and the Port of Iberia.
“We’re very fortunate that the storm surge was not what was predicted,” said Katherin Breaux, the director of public affairs with the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office.
The storm surge may have reached 20 feet in a more rural, uninhabited marshy area along the Louisiana coast near landfall, Trucheult said. The National Weather Service will send teams to evaluate what the storm surge could have been, but until then, a larger surge can’t be ruled out.
“East of Cameron, where the eastern eyewall was, there’s no observation there,” he said. “There’s a gauge in Cameron and the Vermilion Bay, but not much in between the two, and that’s right in the section where the strongest south to north winds were coming in.”
That area is mostly marsh and rural towns, which is why there are fewer reporting devices. And when Weather Service teams evaluate the area, there will be fewer structures to check for signs of storm surge.
There are a few reasons the storm surge likely was lower than predicted, Truchelut said.
For one, storm models take a lot of factors into account, such as topography and the wind field. From there, the most reasonable worst-case scenario is presented to give people an idea of what could happen, and a range of that scenario for a storm surge is presented, Truchelut said.
Another factor was the wind flow. The center of Hurricane Laura came up from Cameron, Louisiana, straight over Lake Charles. The predominate wind flow from the storm was east to west, creating damaging winds but not pushing the water up the Calcasieu River, Truchelut said.
“Lake Charles’ track was horrible for wind, but it wasn’t a track that drove storm surge up toward Lake Charles,” he said.
Contributing: Doyle Rice, USA TODAY. Follow Ashley White on Twitter: @AshleyyDi
This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: Hurricane Laura storm surge: Was Louisiana spared?