Blackouts, Shorn Roofs and a Chemical Fire: Laura’s Devastation

The most powerful storm to hit Louisiana in 164 years left a trail of shattered glass, crumbled cinderblock and twisted facades across hundreds of square miles, rendering much of the area impassable on Thursday.

Fallen power lines and shorn roofs littered a wide swath of Louisiana while a raging chemical fire spewed acrid smoke and shut a major highway just hours after Hurricane Laura roared ashore.

Blackouts, Shorn Roofs and a Chemical Fire: Laura’s Devastation

A 10-foot steeple was plucked from a Pentecostal church in the small town of DeQuincy, 240 miles (386 kilometers) west of New Orleans, as residents huddled inside overnight to shelter from the monster storm. Twenty-five miles away in Westlake, residents were warned to stay indoors and turn off air conditioners to protect themselves from the fumes billowing out of a chlorine fire at a plant that makes Comet cleanser and Clorox bleach.

Blackouts, Shorn Roofs and a Chemical Fire: Laura’s Devastation

Grenetta DuBrock fled her home near Lousiana’s coast as Laura was intensifying over the Gulf of Mexico. The 61-year-old thought evacuating north to DeQuincy would be enough to avoid the worst of the storm. It wasn’t.

“I didn’t sleep, I just prayed all night,” she said in an interview outside the room she rented at the Red Oak Inn. “I am anxious to see how I fared and if I have a house standing.”

Laura slammed Louisiana with 150-mile-an-hour winds, knocking out power to almost 1 million customers. Mobile-phone coverage was non-existent, leaving evacuees isolated and blind to what happened to their relatives, homes and communities.

At least four people were killed in Louisiana by falling trees and Capital One Financial Corp.’s 22-story glass-and-steel tower in Lake Charles was shredded by the wind. Citgo’s nearby refinery may be shut for a month and a half was damaged, according to a person familiar with the situation. Despite all of that, forecasters had been bracing for a killer storm surge that failed to materialize.

For more on how restarting chemical plants triggers gas leaks, read here.

A couple that woke up to a large metal ‘No Deliveries’ sign that became lodged in their trailer after it was blown about 250 feet from Sasol Ltd.’s massive chemical plant.

Kenneth, 23, who declined to provide his surname, couldn’t afford to flee DeQuincy so he sheltered with about a half dozen others in the Pentecostal church. When the steeple was ripped away, “it sounded like someone was trying to break in from outside,” he said, standing barefoot outside the building.

The strong-smelling fumes from the chemical fire were noticeable as far as eight miles away, thanks in part to robust winds that persisted even as Laura moved north into Arkansas and was downgraded to a tropical storm.

KIK Custom Products Inc., owner of the burning facility, said the fire was “a result of damage sustained during Hurricane Laura.” The company is deploying a specialized team to the site and working with first responders, local authorities and environmental agencies to contain the incident.

The plant had been shut down and evacuated prior to Laura’s landfall and all employees were safely accounted for, the company said.

Chemical Concentration

Zach Stephens, 26, who lives in the town of Sulphur near the KIK plant, said residents are used to dangerous incidents given the concentration of chemical makers and related industry in the area. Sasol, Westlake Chemical Corp., BASF SE and Phillips 66 also have large operations in the vicinity.

“There are enough plants around here where something is bound to happen,” Stephens said as he cleared his sister’s yard of trees with a chainsaw. The family owns a snowcone hut that was hit by a tree but was still standing.

“It’s bad but it could be worse,” he said. “I just hope and pray everyone has a good recovery.”

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