Coast cowers as Lili approaches
LAKE CHARLES, Louisiana (CNN) -- With an extremely dangerous Hurricane Lili just hours away Wednesday evening, authorities were urging coastal residents from east Texas to the mouth of the Mississippi River to get out while they still could.
Lili's storm surges could reach as far as 25 miles inland, said officials, who told people in the Category 4 hurricane's path not to dawdle.
"It is critical at this stage to rush preparations to protect your life," said Ed Rappaport of the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Florida.
At 11 p.m. EDT, Hurricane Lili's maximum sustained winds had increased to near 145 mph, forecasters said. The hurricane had reached Category 4 status Wednesday afternoon.
Lili was moving northwest at about 16 mph and is expected to gradually turn north during the next 24 hours.
Experts predict the storm should make landfall Thursday between the predawn hours and noon CDT. It most likely will come ashore between the south-central and southwest Louisiana coast, they said.
Forecasters also called for isolated tornadoes for southern Louisiana overnight.
"We need the people to get away from the shoreline. We've had high storm surges in previous storms with hundreds of lives lost in this area," said Rappaport.
Experts predict Lili's storm surges could reach 20 feet above normal and would be capable to causing massive damage as it travels up to 25 miles inland. Low-lying escape routes are typically cut off by rising water 3-5 hours before the hurricane arrives, and areas 10 feet above sea level can be flooded inland 6 miles or more, according to the NHC.
More than 200,000 people were under evacuation orders along the coast of Louisiana -- where Hurricane Audrey, a category 4 storm that killed 390 people in 1957, slammed ashore -- and the low-lying parts of Iberia Parish and Grand Isle along the Gulf Coast. (Louisiana prepares)
Officials have implemented voluntary evacuation plans for Jefferson County, Texas, and parts of Calcasieu and Jefferson Davis parishes in Louisiana.
"A lot of our people are taking it seriously," said Darlene Koch of the Emergency Management Agency in Jefferson County, Texas. "A lot left early, and others are just now making the decision."
Some just jumped into their cars.
"Destination? I have no idea. But it's going to be north," Glen Guidry, who stopped at a gas station on Interstate 10 west of Lafayette, Louisiana, with his wife and five children, told The Associated Press.
Others feared about what they would find upon their return.
"I got a funny feeling," ranch hand Wilson Miller told AP as he stocked up on cigarettes and sandwiches at a gas station near Lafayette. "When we get back it will be under water and there won't be anything left."
Hurricane force winds extend outward up to 50 miles and tropical storm force winds stretched outward by 195 miles.
Neighboring states may also feel the wrath of Lili.
Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove declared a state of emergency and mobilized the National Guard on Tuesday, even before the storm arrived.
Texas emergency officials said they are preparing for what they call an "extreme storm, almost catastrophic" storm. Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed a disaster declaration.
Along with the hurricane watch, a tropical storm warning is in effect from Freeport to High Island, Texas, and from east of the Mississippi River to the Alabama/Florida border.
Hurricane-force winds are expected to tear up the coast hours ahead of the eye of the storm, and experts warn those destructive winds could travel up to 150 miles inland over the next 24 to 36 hours, the NHC warned.
Lili's speed will make it different from Isidore, the storm that slammed Louisiana last week, flooding major highways and even temporarily filling New Orleans' French Quarter with water, officials in Louisiana said.
"You can't compare the two," said Debbie Conrad, a spokeswoman for the state's Office Emergency Preparedness. "Isidore was a lot broader. This one is more tight and compact, which means we'll have intense winds far inland, but it won't be quite as wet because it's moving faster."
"But you'll still have to deal with the storm surge," she said. "The storm surge is always worse than anything else."