Nearly 700,000 people are estimated to be without power across Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas Friday, as leaders in some communities battered by Hurricane Laura are warning it could take weeks for life to return to anything resembling normalcy.
The developments came as President Trump is planning to head to the Gulf Coast this weekend to survey the damage inflicted by Laura, which made landfall early Thursday with top winds of 150 mph -- putting it among the strongest systems on record in the U.S.
“It is clear that we did not sustain and suffer the absolute, catastrophic damage that we thought was likely,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said. “But, we have sustained a tremendous amount of damage.”
As of midday Friday, PowerOutage.us, a website tracking electrical disruptions across America, estimated over 500,000 customers without power in Louisiana, 125,000 in Texas and 37,000 in Arkansas.
The storm has now weakened to a tropical depression and is moving east, with current maximum sustained winds of 30 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. But flooding and the risk of tornadoes remain possible in the region Friday, its forecasters are warning.
And heavy rain, strong winds and the risk of isolated severe storms will continue along its path until it exits the East Coast on Sunday.
Edwards said search-and-rescue efforts were one of the top priorities at this moment, followed by efforts to find hotel or motel rooms for people unable to stay in their homes.
Officials in Texas and Louisiana have been seeking to avoid traditional mass shelters to avoid spreading the coronavirus – which is presenting a new challenge for disaster recovery planning this hurricane season.
Laura, so far, has been blamed for six deaths in Louisiana.
Falling trees killed at least four people, including a 14-year-old girl and a 68-year-old man. A 24-year-old man died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator inside his residence, while another man drowned in a boat that sank during the storm, investigators said.
Edwards called Laura the most powerful hurricane to strike Louisiana, surpassing Katrina, which was a Category 3 storm when it slammed the coast in 2005.
The full assessment of the damage is expected to take days – but entire neighborhoods were submerged and ruined along the Texas-Louisiana coast.
In some, twisted sheets of metal and debris, downed trees and power lines littered nearly every street, The Associated Press reported. Caravans of utility trucks were met Friday by thunderstorms in the sizzling heat, complicating recovery efforts.
The storm crashed ashore in low-lying Louisiana and clobbered Lake Charles, an industrial and casino city of 80,000 people. On Broad Street, many buildings partially collapsed. Windows were blown out, awnings ripped away and trees were split. A floating casino came unmoored and hit a bridge, and small planes were thrown atop each other at the airport. A television station's tower toppled.
Laura felled a Confederate statue that local officials had voted to keep in front of a courthouse just days earlier.
A fire that erupted at a chemical plant outside of Lake Charles Thursday has been brought under control, although a shelter-in-place order has been issued for those living within one mile of the facility run by Biolab, which manufactures chemicals used in household cleaners and chlorine powder for pools. Louisiana State Police said there were no reports of injuries or exposure from that fire.
Nic Hunter, the mayor of Lake Charles, wrote in a Facebook post that he wasn’t sure when power and water will be fully restored across the city.
“So basically, if you come back to Lake Charles to stay, make sure you understand the above reality and are prepared to live in it for many days, probably weeks. ‘Look and Leave’ truly is the best option for many,” he added.
Laura’s winds blew out every living room window in the Lake Charles house where Bethany Agosto huddled in a closet with her sister and two others.
“It was like a jigsaw puzzle... we were on top of each other, just holding each other and crying,” she told the Associated Press.
Bucky Millet, 78, of Lake Arthur, Louisiana, considered joining the more than 580,000 coastal residents who evacuated, but decided, because of the coronavirus, to ride out the storm with family. He thought the roof of his house would disappear at one point when a small tornado blew the cover off the bed of his pickup.
“You’d hear a crack and a boom and everything shaking,” he said.
Chevellce Dunn considers herself fortunate. She spent the night huddling on a sofa with her son, daughter and four nieces and nephews as winds rocked their home in Orange, Texas. Now she's without power in the sweltering heat.
“It ain’t going to be easy. As long as my kids are fine, I’m fine,” Dunn said.
Fox News’ Janice Dean and The Associated Press contributed to this report.