BATON ROUGE, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Louisiana escaped the worst of the damage feared from Hurricane Laura after it made landfall early Thursday morning as a powerful Category 4 hurricane, but Gov. John Bel Edwards warned that the danger has not yet passed and that there is a lot of work to be done to recover.

“It is clear that we did not sustain and suffer the absolute catastrophic damage that we thought was likely based on the forecast we had last night, but we have sustained a tremendous amount of damage,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said of Hurricane Laura as it was downgraded to a Tropical Storm early Thursday afternoon, nearly 12 hours after making landfall.

“We have thousands and thousands of fellow citizens whose lives are upside down because their businesses and/or their homes have been damaged. And we have lots of challenges to say the least with a variety of things, whether it’s electrical power, water service, you name it, and so we have a lot of work to do. But we are in better shape today than might have been the case. And so we have a lot to be thankful for, as well.”

Laura made landfall just after 1 a.m. Thursday, slamming into in Cameron and on to Lake Charles with sustained winds of 150 miles per hour.

“This was the most powerful storm to ever make landfall in Louisiana,” Edwards noted, “and it is still a powerful storm that is in the state of Louisiana that is continuing to cause damage and life threatening conditions, including futher loss of electricity.”

In fact, Hurricane Laura is the strongest storm to hit the U.S. this year and joined the ranks of the top ten storms on record to make landfall with winds over 150 miles per hour.

Edwards said the massive, ten to twenty-foot storm surge predicted for coastal Louisiana did not come to pass because the track of the storm shifted slightly east so that the eye of the storm never crossed over the Calcasieu Ship Channel, a waterway that connects the city of Lake Charles with the Gulf of Mexico. That meant the powerful southerly winds never pushed the water up over the channel, which could have caused catastrophic flooding.

Still, communities along the Gulf Coast experienced high water levels in the wake of the powerful storm and water continues to rise in portions of Vermilion Parish and southwest Iberia Parish as remnants of the storm churn in the region, and Edwards said some gauges in Cameron Parish failed when storm surge reached 12 feet, “so we think some was higher than 15 feet, but it was not the 20 feet we were told.” Still, Edwards said, nine to 12 feet is a lot of storm surge.

Flooding, rainfall and damaging winds also spread inland over central and northern Louisiana.

“The entire state saw tropical storm-force winds, that’s how big this storm was,” said Edwards.

On Thursday afternoon, Edwards confirmed a fourth death resulting from the storm, noting that none were in extreme Southeast Louisiana and that all four were killed by falling trees, “which is in line with a major wind event.” The deaths were in Vernon, Jackson, and Acadia parishes. He said more fatalities were expected as search and rescue and recovery operations continue and two more deaths were confirmed Thursday afternoon, bringing the total to six.

“Today is about saving lives,” Edwards said, urging residents to stay off the roads as search teams, power crews, and first responders continue their work and damage assessments get underway while high water, debris and downed power lines remain a threat to public safety.

“Now is not the time to go sightseeing. I am appealing to everyone in Louisiana, don’t get out on the road unless it is necessary for you to do that.”

More than 700,000 people in Louisiana and Texas were without power Thursday afternoon, according to the website PowerOutage.Us, which tracks utility reports.

“The good news is, we had more line crews positioned in Louisiana ahead of landfall than ever before,” while cautioning that does not mean power is going to be restored quickly for everyone because of widespread damage to infrastructure.

Interstate 10 in Lake Charles remains closed as crews assess heavy storm damage including a casino that came loose and got stuck under the Calcasieu River Bridge. By early Thursday afternoon, the Department of Transportation had conducted an inspection of the bridge by drone and a closer, in-person inspection was in the works to determine whether it could safely be reopened.

Shawn Wilson, Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, encouraged drivers to check for storm-related road closures.  

A major chemical fire in the Westlake/Moss Bluff area also forced nearby residents to shelter in place after a chemical reaction caused a fire and the release of chlorine gas into the air.  Edwards asked residents in the area to remain patient inside their homes with the air conditioning off while state and local first responders assessed the situation and monitored for air quality. As of the governor’s briefing, there were no reports of anyone suffering symptoms from exposure to the caustic chemical.

More than 2,100 people are in shelters across the state, Edwards said, with more than 1,900 of them in non-congregational settings like hotels and motels. The rest are in shelters operated by parishes, some associated with the American Red Cross.

With less widespread and catastrophic damage, Edwards said he hoped fewer people would be forced to shelter away from home at increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

“Hopefully that means the homes that were damaged can be made habitable and safe and secure much more quickly and cheaply than would otherwise be the case and people don’t’ have to shelter at all in some cases or won’t have to shelter for very long.”

Louisiana reported 723 new coronavirus cases and 23 more deaths Thursday as Hurricane Laura brought damage and destruction to parts of the state, including four deaths by the time Gov. John Bel Edwards shared an update during the afternoon briefing.

“I mean think about that. We don’t know the total deaths from the storm, but thus far it’s four. Today alone, 23 related to COVID. So that should underscore what we all know but maybe lost sight of because of the hurricane, that we are still in a COVID environment, and we need people to play their role, make sure that they’re wearing their masks, social distancing, washing their hands frequently, staying home when they’re sick. And all of that becomes more complicated when you’re trying to respond to, recover from, a storm.”

Two more storm deaths have since been confirmed, for a total of at least six.