The city lies about 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, but that is no protection from the severe flash flooding that forecasters expected to accompany the storm as it pushes inland over Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas over the next two days.
“Anybody watching in these areas along the Louisiana coast, I mean, it is too dangerous to be outside,” the director of the National Hurricane Center, Ken Graham, said in a video posted to Twitter late Wednesday. “I hope you’re not there. I hope you evacuated.”
The Lake Charles area is particularly vulnerable to flooding. Much of the land between the city and the coast is treeless marshland that is bisected by shipping channels that lead directly in from the Gulf. With a storm surge predicted to be as high as 20 feet, these channels “provide conduits like a hose going in,” said Paul Kemp, a professor of coastal sciences at Louisiana State University.
Once a freshwater lake, its namesake is now, because of saltwater influx from the Gulf, essentially a brackish inlet of the ocean. Petrochemical refineries, the main driver of the region’s economy, are within sight of downtown.
The city of 80,000 sits along Interstate 10, the primary route between south Louisiana and southeastern Texas. But that is not much help when big storms hit. During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Interstate 10 disappeared under a choppy ocean and was closed for days.
Hours before the storm made landfall, the state’s transportation department said that part Interstate 10 stretching more than 100 miles from the Texas border, including a portion that runs through Lake Charles, had been closed.
The city’s mayor, Nic Hunter, told a local television station on Wednesday that some residents might be without electricity, water or wastewater services for days.