Hurricane Laura was downgraded again to a tropical storm early Thursday afternoon as Texas federal, state and local officials breathed a sigh of relief that they avoided a direct blow from the storm and offered support for parts of Louisiana dealing with the hurricane's worst effects.
As of early Thursday afternoon, the city of Orange appeared to be the hardest hit in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott said during a news conference with the city’s mayor and the county judge. Abbott, U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and Lt. Gov Dan Patrick toured the damage path via helicopter earlier in the day.
“You saw more rooftops ripped off, you saw more shingles missing, you saw more trees down [in Orange],” Abbott said. “You saw some roads that were still inundated under water, impassible at this particular time.”
Abbott said he anticipated reports of additional heavy damage as residents made their way home but said Texans should consider themselves lucky that previous dire forecasts didn’t materialize.
“As I asked everybody how they feel about working their way through this hurricane, everyone pretty much had the same phrase, and that is: ‘We dodged a bullet,’” he said. “It could have been far worse. We were anticipating and it was prognosticated that there would be a storm surge that could very easily exceed 10 feet.”
The surge was closer to 3 feet, Abbott said, and praised local government leaders for their preparedness.
“One thing that saved lives was evacuation orders that were made by local officials. And it was so important for local residents to heed those local warnings,” he said.
But Abbott said there is still a considerable amount of work to do in the region in the storm’s aftermath.
"While we are grateful that the damage of Hurricane Laura was far less severe than expected, many communities in Southeast Texas have experienced significant damage from this storm — and the State of Texas is already initiating recovery efforts and ensuring these communities have the support they need to rebuild," he said in a statement after the news conference.
More than 100,000 Texans did not have power in the East Texas counties of Jefferson, Orange and Hardin, local media reported Thursday morning. Abbott later said that there were more than 160,000 power outages throughout the region by the afternoon. Nearly 8,500 people were provided temporary shelter throughout the state, with more than 3,000 hotel rooms used for that purpose.
“Those efforts will continue as long as needed,” Abbott said. He said local officials will determine a timeline for when local residents can return home. But some areas, including Beaumont and Galveston, lifted their evacuation orders as early as Thursday morning.
The storm moved ashore in Cameron Parish, Louisiana — which borders Texas — around midnight Thursday after almost strengthening into a Category 5 storm, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Even before Abbott’s visit to the area, officials there were sounding optimistic that their corner of the state had escaped the worst of the hurricane's impact.
"I'm very pleased to report the damage to Southeast Texas was minimal. We really dodged a bullet," state Rep. Dade Phelan, a Republican who represents part of Jefferson County and all of neighboring Orange County, tweeted Thursday morning. "Prayers for our friends in the Southwest Louisiana."
In Newton County, by the border with Louisiana, County Judge Kenneth Weeks said that Hurricane Laura knocked down trees, blocking roads and major highways. Some areas received minor flooding, and power was out in most of the county as of Thursday morning. Crews were working to clear the roads.
“We got about what we expected and what we geared for,” Weeks said. “Our big push right now is to make sure that all of our citizens can get back to their properties safely and assess damage to their homes.”
Northwest from Newton, San Augustine County officials had been working on having their shelter ready for evacuees. Due to COVID-19, they had to lower the capacity from 250 people to 100. But, so far, they haven't needed to use it.
“Luckily I don't have much to report. Those last two hours when the storm shifted east gave us a break,” said San Augustine County Judge Jeff Boyd. “Now we are working to get the power on and assess any damage, but it seems that we are going to be fine.”
Earlier in the day Abbott, warned Texans not to celebrate too much before officials had a chance to assess the storm’s full impact on the area.
“Good news, which is really premature, is that we have no reports of any deaths,” he told Good Morning America on Thursday morning. “The storm continues to sweep through Texas in an unprecedented fashion because it’s not just where the surge came in. [The storm] is going up north to Jasper and Center, Texas, all the way up to Marshall, Texas, so in northeast Texas a hurricane is going through there for, as far as I know, the first time ever.”
By early afternoon, however, Abbott said there were no confirmed reports of fatalities in Texas, which he considered a "miracle."
"It shows that prayers were answered and so many people cared so much about their neighborhood, and that preparation paid off," he said.
After it was clear that Harris County escaped widespread damage, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said federal lawmakers needed to act with a sense of urgency on infrastructure projects because next time, she said, the Houston area might not be so lucky.
“It shouldn’t take a near miss of a catastrophic hurricane to force our national leaders to recognize the urgency of investing in flood infrastructure, including a coastal barrier for Galveston Bay,” she said in a statement. “We’ve seen our vulnerability to flooding time and time again. And we are also vulnerable to storm surge. As the energy capital of the nation, a direct hit to Harris County would have enormous repercussions for our local and national economy, and it would be an environmental catastrophe.”
Hidalgo said that Harris County is acting on the need and has so far raised bridge levels, increased water-detention capabilities and tightened development regulations, but she called on Congress to do more.
“We cannot do this alone. Congress should follow our lead in expediting flood projects and they must do everything in their power to fund a coastal barrier for Galveston Bay, now. Time is running out,” she said.
Juan Pablo Garnham, Brandon Formby and Matthew Watkins contributed reporting.
Disclosure: Entergy has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.