LAKE CHARLES, Louisiana (KTRK) -- Gov. John Bel Edwards said he's received report of the first fatality from Hurricane Laura in Louisiana, a 14-year-old girl who died when a tree fell on her home in Vernon.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is crediting the evacuations of thousands of people for preventing deaths in Texas. Edwards says they are only beginning to assess the damage.
Hurricane Laura made landfall near Cameron, Louisiana as a ferocious Category 4 monster with 150 mph winds early Thursday, swamping low-lying coast with ocean water that forecasters said could be 20 feet deep and unsurvivable.
The National Hurricane Center said the storm came ashore at 1 a.m.
Both governors say the storm surge appears to have been not as bad as they feared.
Abbott said the hurricane's storm surge hit the east Texas communities of Port Arthur, Beaumont and Orange "pretty hard" overnight, weakening to a Category 2. The eye of the hurricane has continued to move about 100 miles north along the Texas-Louisiana state line.
Winds gusted above hurricane force to 127 mph while Laura's northern eyewall moved onshore over Cameron Parish. Winds ripped apart buildings and leveled trees throughout the region.
PHOTOS: Hurricane Laura impacts Gulf Coast
Authorities shut down I-10 to traffic as the massive storm closed in Wednesday night. Eastbound lanes are closed at the Texas/Louisiana state line. I-10 westbound lanes are closed west of the Atchafalaya basin.
The storm grew nearly 87% in power in just 24 hours to a size the National Hurricane Center called "extremely dangerous."
In Lake Charles, widespread damage was seen after the eye of the storm passed. The tallest building in the downtown area, known as the Capital OneTower, sustained major damage.
The city's skyline was also changed forever by the storm. A 400 foot television transmission tower belonging to the local ABC and NBC affiliate KPLC-TV was reduced to a mangled mess by Laura's extreme winds. The tower was erected in 1954 and had survived Hurricane Audrey in 1957 and Hurricane Rita in 2005.
A Category 4 hurricane can cause damage so catastrophic that power outages may last for months in places, and wide areas could be uninhabitable for weeks or months. The threat of such devastation posed a new disaster-relief challenge for a government already straining to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. Among the parts of Louisiana that were under evacuation orders were areas turning up high rates of positive COVID-19 tests.
For some, the decision to leave home left them with no place to stay. Wary of opening mass shelters during a pandemic, Texas officials instead put evacuees in hotels, but Austin stopped taking arrivals before dawn because officials said they ran out of rooms. Other evacuees called the state's 211 information line and were directed to Ennis, outside Dallas, only to be told after driving hundreds of miles that there were no hotels available or vouchers.
Taniquia Ned and her sisters showed up without money to rent a room, saying the family had burned through its savings after losing jobs because of the coronavirus. "The COVID-19 is just totally wiping us out," said Shalonda Joseph, 43, a teacher in Port Arthur.
Prior to its arrival, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards lamented that the storm meant suspension of community testing for COVID-19 at a crucial time - as elementary and secondary schools in Louisiana are opening and students are returning to college campuses. "We're basically going to be blind for this week," Edwards said, referring to the lack of testing.
Laura is expected to cause widespread flash flooding in states far from the coast. Flood watches were issued for much of Arkansas, and forecasters said heavy rainfall could arrive by Friday in parts of Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky. Laura is so powerful that it's expected to become a tropical storm again once it reaches the Atlantic Ocean, potentially threatening the Northeast.
Becky Clements, 56, evacuated from Lake Charles after hearing that it could take a direct hit. She and her family found an AirBnb hundreds of miles inland. Almost 15 years have passed since Hurricane Rita destroyed the city.
"The devastation afterward in our town and that whole corner of the state was just awful," Clements recalled. "Whole communities were washed away, never to exist again. ... So knowing how devastating the storms are, there was no way we were going to stay for this."
The church educator said she fears for her office, which is in a trailer following recent construction.
"I very much anticipate that my office will be gone when I get back. It will be scattered throughout that field."
The hurricane took its toll on a center of the U.S. energy industry. The government said 84% of Gulf oil production and an estimated 61% of natural gas production were shut down. Nearly 300 platforms have been evacuated. Consumers are unlikely to see big price hikes however, because the pandemic has decimated demand for fuel. Damage to facilities wasn't yet known.
Laura closed in on the U.S. after killing nearly two dozen people on the island of Hispaniola, including 20 in Haiti and three in the Dominican Republic, where it knocked out power and caused intense flooding.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.