ORANGE, Texas – Robert Walker planned to ride out Hurricane Laura, just as he had with most other big storms that over the years have repeatedly pummeled this region of refineries on the banks of the Sabine River bordering Louisiana.
As a drainage foreman for the city, he is responsible for clearing flood water from streets and is considered key — particularly with Laura’s initial predicted storm surge of at least 10 feet.
But late Wednesday afternoon, as projections for the powerful hurricane’s impact on Orange worsened, Walker’s boss urged him to leave. The 61-year-old corralled his five cats and joined his wife in a friend’s cabin outside of Lufkin. Thursday, he pulled up outside his house in Orange’s historic district and marveled at what he saw.
“I really expected the roof to be torn off,” he said. “I dodged a bullet.”
That phrase was echoed verbatim across Southeast Texas Thursday as state and local leaders and thousands of residents surveyed the comparatively little damage with gratitude — and surprise. Though Orange was the worst hit area in Texas, just 40 miles east residents of Lake Charles faced significantly more severe and widespread destruction. Authorities said at least four people in Louisiana died because of the storm.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who visited Orange Thursday and conducted an aerial tour, said the area had been remarkably fortunate. The city of about 18,500 people is the county seat of a region whose economy revolves around its many chemical plants and had been directly in the hurricane’s sight, with forecasters predicting “unsurvivable” storm surge as it strengthened into a Category 4 storm Wednesday. It turned slightly east early Thursday, landing 70 miles from Orange in Cameron, Louisiana, before weakening into a tropical storm as it headed north.
“There is a collective sigh of relief across the county,” Orange County Judge John Gothia said. “Finally, we’re getting a little bit of a break. We have been in the eye of so many storms.”
Residents list them with the familiarity of relatives: There was Rita in 2005, Humberto in 2007, Gustav in 2008, Ike in 2008, and Harvey in 2017. Last year, Tropical Storm Imelda battered the region again, flooding for a second time the homes of many who had suffered during Harvey.