LAKE CHARLES, La. — Hurricane Laura was the first major hurricane of the 2020 season, making landfall near Lake Charles as a Category 4. Its winds were dangerous. But, the potential storm surge had forecasters especially worried.
“The threat of a storm surge being greater than six feet, nine feet above ground level, was a situation–with 100 plus miles per hour winds on top of that–it wasn’t going to be a situation that you would have a good chance of survival in,” says Roger Erickson. He is the warning coordinator at the Lake Charles Weather Forecast Office.
It’s Erickson’s job to communicate the risk of a storm to the Lake Charles region. But, since he is also part of the community, he was at risk, too, and had to evacuate his weather office. He continued tracking the storm from the local emergency operations center.
“Even though I was on the west side of the building and we were in a room with hurricane force windows, the windows started creaking in the middle of the night during the event,” recalls Erickson. “It is sort of like someone was rocking their chair. In fact, I thought my boss was rocking in his chair. But, it was actually the windows breathing in, breathing out, trying to get pulled out from the strength of the winds. And it went from that to eventually the whole building was shaking.”
The forecast was for “unsurvivable” storm surge–15 to 20 feet of water in some areas. It was a prediction that proved true with surge as high as 18 feet above ground level. Ericskson says it could have actually been worse for Lake Charles.
“With this system here, we got very lucky,” he says. “It shifted probably 20 miles to the east of originally where we thought the landfall was going to be. And that really saved Lake Charles from catastrophic flooding that we were expecting.”
The wind, however, caused widespread damage, including at the weather forecast office.
Erickson says one of the obstacles to communicating Hurricane Laura’s risks was the presence of Hurricane Marco at the same time.
“A lot of people were focused on Marco, even after Marco turned out to be a non-player for southwest Louisiana. People were still hung up on what that was going to do,” he says. “Meanwhile, we had a Category 4 hurricane barreling towards us.”
He says one lesson learned is to keep focus on the the real threat when multiple storms form.