Hurricane Laura Threaded Needle to Avoid Even Worse Devastation

Hurricane Laura’s last-minute turn spared the U.S. Gulf Coast as much as $30 billion in damage.

As it roared toward shore early Thursday, the monstrous storm with 150-miles (240-kilometers) per-hour winds shifted slightly east, ramming into a swampy and rural stretch of coastline amid the heart of America’s energy industry.

The storm, packing the strongest winds to hit the region in more than 150 years, caused an estimated $20 billion in damages, according to Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler with Enki Research. But thanks to that right turn, it spared nearby cities and refineries of its full fury.

“If it was 20 miles to the left, we’d probably be talking about a $50 billion storm,” Watson said in an interview. It “really threaded the needle between Lake Charles and Port Arthur.”

Hurricane Laura Threaded Needle to Avoid Even Worse Devastation

The storm killed at least six people, destroyed homes and damaged oil refineries. As of Friday afternoon, more than 650,000 customers were without electricity in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas, according to utility websites.

If Watson’s $20 billion estimate holds, it will be among the most expensive U.S. hurricanes. But it would not make the top 10.

Read More: Hurricane Shows How Vulnerable U.S. Petrochemical Hub Really Is

It could have been much worse. Laura hit on the outskirts of Cameron, a speck of a town south of Lake Charles that’s been battered over the years by hurricanes, including Ike in 2008 and Rita in 2005. It’s flanked by two national wildlife refuges, and the spot where Laura came ashore is open bayou.

Because hurricanes in the northern hemisphere rotate counterclockwise, the strongest storm surge is typically to the right, or in this case east, of the eye. And east of Cameron, the shoreline is largely undeveloped coastal marshes for more than 100 miles.

“Nobody lives there,” Colorado State University Research Scientist Phil Klotzbach said in an interview. “The surge mostly just irritated the alligators.”

Hurricane Laura Threaded Needle to Avoid Even Worse Devastation

The story would have been much different if Laura hadn’t shifted its track. If it had hit 20 miles further west, the winds and surge would have turned all their might on Lake Charles.

Watson had initially forecast the impact at closer to $30 billion on Wednesday evening when models showed the Category 4 storm arriving further west.

Hurricanes are a game of inches, especially when you talk about storm surges,” said Ryan Truchelut of WeatherTiger.

“A bullet was dodged in the sense that the worst of the surge conditions did not strike a heavily populated area,” he said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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