Hurricane Laura nears Category 5 strength as Gulf Coast braces for what's expected to be "catastrophic" damage

Hundreds of Hurricane Laura evacuees wait in their cars as they line up for hotel vouchers at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin. The storm intensified as it neared the Texas-Louisiana border Wednesday night. Credit: Bronte Wittpenn/American-Statesman via USA TODAY NETWORK

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Get the latest updates on Hurricane Laura here.

Hurricane Laura almost strengthened into a Category 5 storm Wednesday as it neared the Gulf Coast and threatened "catastrophic" devastation from storm surge and wind damage on both sides of the Texas-Louisiana border.

The storm, currently a Category 4 hurricane, is expected to make landfall after midnight Thursday. At 10 p.m. Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center reported that the storm’s maximum sustained winds had reached 150 mph — just 7 mph short of becoming classified as the most dire level of hurricane.

Storms of Laura’s strength can severely damage buildings and homes, down power lines, and snap or uproot most trees, according to the center. On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott warned Texans in the area about the storm’s dangerous winds. And on Wednesday, he told Texans that the state would not be able to rescue people caught in the hurricane’s path from Wednesday evening until 9 a.m. Thursday.

An extreme wind warning was also in effect until 1 a.m. Thursday for areas including Beaumont and Port Arthur, the National Weather Service for Lake Charles, Louisiana, tweeted Wednesday night.

“Treat these imminent extreme winds as if a tornado was approaching and move immediately to an interior room or shelter NOW!” the tweet read.

Hurricane Laura is also expected to cause flooding and damage from storm surge, which pushes water from the coast inland. From Freeport to the Texas-Louisiana line, parts of the coast are expected to experience storm surges between 2 and 15 feet, according to an advisory Wednesday night from the hurricane center.

“The combination of a dangerous storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline,” the advisory warned.

Multiple Texas cities and counties issued mandatory or voluntary evacuations in recent days, with thousands of evacuees heading to Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, among other places. But thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, state and local officials have been scrambling to shelter evacuees, shifting as much as possible from emergency shelters to government-paid hotel rooms.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Laura will mark the latest in a string of devastations for Texans in Beaumont and Port Arthur, where some are still recovering from damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and, more recently, fallout from the pandemic.