With Air Force Reserve hurricane hunters issuing dire warnings Wednesday about Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm expected to make landfall on the Texas-Louisiana border overnight, U.S. troops from both states are preparing for rescue and recovery efforts.
More than 3,000 members of the Louisiana National Guard have been mobilized and another 3,000 soldiers and airmen are poised to respond, according to Col. Thomas Friloux, director of the Joint Staff of the Louisiana National Guard.
The units have staged 222 high water vehicles, as well as 65 boats and 19 Army National Guard aircraft along the Louisiana coast and as far north as Shreveport, where the storm is expected to travel, Friloux said.
In Texas, more than 1,000 service members have been activated with more than 20 aircraft -- UH-60 Blackhawks, CH-47 Chinooks and C-130 Hercules -- on standby. The Texas National Guard has mobilized 117 high profile vehicles as well.
The National Hurricane Center issued storm warnings all along the coast Tuesday and tropical storm level winds already were being felt along the Gulf Coast Wednesday afternoon. Friloux said many residents of the region have voluntarily left, but the Louisiana Guard already has helped evacuate 187 civilians and seven pets.
The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to bring a level of complexity never before seen in U.S. disaster response, with the states expecting to house evacuees in hotels rather than large facilities such as gymnasiums and sports arenas. National Guard personnel will be on hand to support additional coronavirus testing as needed, officials said.
"We're participating with our state and local partners with the evacuation process .. all these things are being done in accordance with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines]: spacing, [personal protective equipment], handwashing," Friloux said.
Laura is a fast-moving storm that the National Hurricane Center has called "dangerous," with "a catastrophic storm surge, high winds and flash flooding expected" on Wednesday night.
Watches and warnings have been issued from Freeport, Texas in the west all the way to the mouth of the Mississippi River, southeast of New Orleans.
The crew of an Air Force WC-130J measured maximum sustained winds near 140 miles per hour with higher gusts on Wednesday, and "some additional strengthening possible."
Laura could make landfall as a Category 4 storm, but is expected to weaken rapidly once it is over land.
Weather watchers at the National Hurricane Center said they are concerned about an "unsurvivable storm surge" that could strike along the coast and penetrate up to 30 miles inland.
The last major hurricane to strike Texas was Harvey in 2017. That Category 4 storm stalled inland, causing massive flooding in Houston and an estimated $125 billion in damage.
Hurricane Rita, a Category 3 storm, hit the Texas-Louisiana border in September 2005, less than a month after the historic Hurricane Katrina made landfall to the east. Katrina's storm surge overwhelmed the levee system in New Orleans, causing at least 570 deaths and leading to the destruction of nearly 70% of the city's homes. An additional 1,000 fatalities were reported across the state.
More than 19,800 National Guard members remain on active duty for pandemic response, delivering meals, supporting testing and assisting with facilities sanitization, according to Brig. Gen. Nick Ducich, vice director of the National Guard Bureau's operations directorate.