500,000 ordered to evacuate as Hurricane Laura strengthens in Gulf

Officials in east Texas and western Louisiana ordered more than 500,000 people to evacuate as Hurricane Laura draws closer to making landfall.

"Today is the day. The weather is still nice here in Galveston. This is the day for everybody to get their belongs together and, for the safety of themselves and their family, to go ahead and evacuate today. Do not wait," Galveston, Texas, mayor pro tem Craig Brown told The Weather Channel.

The coastal city issued a mandatory evacuation order Tuesday morning, while the surrounding Galveston County issued a voluntary evacuation for the entire Bolivar Peninsula.

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Jefferson County, Texas, Judge Jeff Branick, meanwhile, ordered a mandatory evacuation for the county set to take effect Tuesday morning. Essential workers are exempted from the order. Orange County, Texas, officials have also issued an evacuation order effective Tuesday morning. The county of about 83,000 sits on the Louisiana border.

“The main point is that we’re going to have a significant hurricane make landfall late Wednesday or early Thursday,” National Hurricane Center Deputy Director Ed Rappaport said Tuesday, according to the Weather Channel.

Social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic means emergency shelters are operating at reduced capacity, further complicating the evacuation process.

"Frankly there's not that many places for people to go to," Dick Gremillion, director of homeland security and emergency preparedness for Louisiana's Calcasieu Parish, told The Weather Channel. "In our traditional shelters, we've lost two-thirds of capacity. It has been a difficult time rolling COVID into hurricane preparations."

Mayor Thurman Bartie of Port Arthur, Texas, another border city, said he will ask his more than 54,000 residents to evacuate as well unless the forecast changes to predict landfall farther east.

"This is not Harvey. This is not Imelda. This is not Allison. This is Laura. Every storm is different and we urge folks not to use any prior storm as a template for what could or will happen. What we need to do is prepare for the worst," Harris County, Texas, Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a Monday news conference, according to the Weather Channel.