Hurricane Laura appears set to slam the Gulf Coast of the United States late Wednesday or early Thursday as a Category 3 storm, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Category 3 hurricanes have sustained winds of 111 to 129 miles per hour. At a Tuesday reading, captured by scientists on a hurricane hunter plane, Laura was a Category 1 hurricane with recorded winds as high as 75 mph.
"The waters are warm enough everywhere there to support a major hurricane, Category 3 or even higher," said the center's deputy director, Ed Rappaport. "The waters are very warm where the storm is now and will be for the entire path up until the Gulf Coast."
The center predicts up to 11 feet of storm surge across parts of Texas and Louisiana, plus an estimated maximum of 15 inches of rain in some parts of Louisiana.
The dire forecast comes after another storm, Marco, fizzled in the gulf, instead of pummeling Louisiana as expected.
Laura killed three people in the Dominican Republic and 20 Haiti. It spared Cuba a direct hit.
The hurricane center warned Gulf Coast residents that "storm surge, wind, and rainfall hazards will extend well away from Laura's center along the Gulf Coast."
Louisiana and Mississippi have declared state emergencies and begun opening emergency shelters. The city of Port Arthur, Texas, has issued a mandatory evacuation order that began early Tuesday. Houston officials are warning residents to prepare for several days without electricity and possible evacuations of coastal areas.
Many of the areas in Laura's path were devastated in August 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, which sent storm surge over New Orleans' levees and also devastated Mississippi. Hurricane Rita followed the next month.
Mississippi business owner Jeremy Burke said he understands the danger Laura poses.
"The wind [from Katrina] did do damage," he told the Associated Press, "but the thing that put the nail in the coffin was the storm surge."