Storm Laura was upgraded to a category one hurricane, shortly after entering the warm and deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico Tuesday – as it gathers strength on a path to hit Louisiana and Texas.
More than half a million people have been given mandatory evacuation orders ahead of the hurricane, amid fears it could unleash a surge of seawater higher than a basketball hoop which could swamp entire towns.
State emergencies were declared in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, and shelters opened – with cots set farther apart as well as other measures designed to curb coronavirus infections.
Gov Greg Abbott of Texas declared a state of emergency for 23 counties and more than 420,000 people in East Texas are being told to evacuate.
Galveston Mayor Pro Tem Craig Brown signed a mandatory evacuation Tuesday instructing all of the city’s residents to begin leaving the island for safety.
‘Today is the day. The weather is still nice here in Galveston. This is the day for everybody to get their belongings together and, for the safety of themselves and their family, to go ahead and evacuate today. Do not wait,’ Brown told The Weather Channel.
Officials in Galveston County also issued a voluntary evacuation for the Bolivar Peninsula, saying it was possible that the area could be cut off from emergency services because of Hurricane Laura.
In Louisiana Gov John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency on Friday and President Donald Trump approved a federal request for help. Evacuations orders in Louisiana are affecting more than 125,000 residents, officials said.
The National Hurricane Center projected that Laura will bring winds of around 115mph when it makes landfall, capable of devastating damage.
‘The main point is that we’re going to have a significant hurricane make landfall late Wednesday or early Thursday,’ National Hurricane Center Deputy Director Ed Rappaport said Tuesday.
The cross winds that killed off hurricane Marco yesterday are not present, so there is little to keep Laura from turbocharging. Nearly all the computer simulations that forecasters rely on show rapid strengthening at some point in the next couple of days.
‘The waters are warm enough everywhere there to support a major hurricane, Category 3 or even higher. The waters are very warm where the storm is now and will be for the entire path up until the Gulf Coast,’ Rappaport said of Laura.
In Port Arthur Texas, Mayor Thurman Bartie issued a mandatory evacuation order for the city’s more than 54,000 residents that started at 6am Tuesday.
People planning on entering official shelters can bring just one bag of personal belongings each, and must ‘have a mask’ to reduce the spread of coronavirus, the order said.
‘If you decide to stay, you’re staying on your own,’ Bartie said.
Officials in Houston asked residents to prepare supplies in case they lose power for a few days or need to evacuate homes along the coast.
Lina Hidalgo, the top executive for Harris County, which encompasses Houston, warned of deadly winds and a destructive storm surge after Laura makes landfall late Wednesday or early Thursday. She said that put millions of lives at risk as Laura moved westward and took aim at the fourth-biggest city in the United States.
‘This storm certainly can cause unprecedented devastation,’ Hidalgo said at a news conference. ‘We truly have to say: Prepare for the worst.’
The hurricane was packing winds of 75mph as it moved across the Gulf of Mexico, qualifying it as a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane intensity.
Laura was forecast to become a ‘major’ hurricane of Category 3 or higher by Wednesday night as it approaches the US coast, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC).
The crew of a hurricane hunter plane confirmed that Laura became a hurricane with top winds of 75mph winds shortly after passing between the western tip of Cuba and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
The storm was located about 525 miles southeast of Lake Charles, Louisiana, on Tuesday afternoon and moving to the west-northwest at 16 miles per hour, the NHC said. The hurricane was expected to make landfall late Wednesday or early Thursday along the Texas-Louisiana border, the NHC said.
Laura could possibly land as a devastating Category 4 when it hits, said meteorologist Chris Kerr at agriculture, energy and weather data provider DTN.
Hidalgo County issued voluntary evacuations for a huge swath of the coastal region surrounding Houston. Evacuation shelters are being readied in San Antonio, Dallas and Austin for people fleeing the coast.
Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, about 80 miles east of Houston, was closed and its 15,000 students urged to evacuate, the school said.
Laura passed Cuba after killing at least 12 people in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, where it knocked out power and caused flooding in the two nations that share the island of Hispaniola.
Laura is expected to raise up to 11 feet of sea water in a storm surge that could inundate the coastline from High Island in Texas to Morgan City, Louisiana, the hurricane center said.
‘We’re talking about something that’s on the order of 10 feet and that’s going to penetrate well inland,’ Rappaport said.
On top of that, up to 15 inches of rain could fall in some spots in Louisiana, said Donald Jones, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Lake Charles, Louisiana – in the bullseye of Laura´s projected path.
‘Whatever happens, happens. We’re going to roll with the punches,’ said Capt Brad Boudreaux, who operates a fishing guide service in Hackberry, Louisiana, near the Texas line.
US coastal residents were lucky not to get hit by two hurricanes in quick succession, after Marco greatly weakened and became a remnant just off Louisiana’s shore on Tuesday.
Satellite images showed a disorganized cluster of clouds. It was relegated to what meteorologists call ‘a naked swirl,’ Jones said.
Marco made landfall on Monday near the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana around 6pm CDT, and brought heavy rainfall and gusty winds to parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.
Laura’s unwelcome arrival comes just days before the August 29 anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which breached the levees in New Orleans, flattened much of the Mississippi coast and killed as many as 1,800 people in 2005.
Hurricane Rita then struck southwest Louisiana that September 24 as a Category 3 storm. Now southwest Louisiana again faces the threat of being hit by a major hurricane, and Rita is on the mind of Ron Leleux.
‘Finally we ran out of luck in 2005 with Rita,’ Leleux said from his home in Sulphur, where he served as mayor from 2002-2010. ‘When something like this comes up, I think people go back and it brings back a lot of bad memories.’
In the southwest corner of Louisiana, Capt Tommy Adams, a local fishing guide, was prepared for anything but said ‘you never know what´s going to happen.
‘I´m moving to a house a little more inland, probably about an hour north, just to be on the safe side,’ said Adams, who also lives in Sulphur.
In Waveland, Mississippi, a coastal town devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2015, Jeremy Burke said ‘our biggest threat down here is the storm surge’.
When Katrina struck, ‘the wind did do damage, but the thing that put the nail in the coffin was the storm surge,’ said Burke, who owns Bay Books in nearby Bay St Louis.
Many residents in Waveland are staying in place as Laura bears down on the coast, but they also have their cars and trucks gassed up in case the forecast grows more ominous, Burke said.
‘People are prepared to possibly go at the drop of a hat,’ he said. ‘We never take a storm for granted. We might have dodged a bullet with Marco, and obviously some people along the Gulf Coast are not going to be as blessed as us.’
The Louisiana National Guard is preparing for the hurricane by mobilizing 98 high water vehicles and 55 boats for response efforts.
‘Our sights are on Laura now,’ Edwards said in a news briefing. ‘It has the potential to be a major hurricane.’
Laura developed in the Atlantic a couple hundred miles east-southeast of the northern Leeward Islands on Friday, breaking a record for the earliest L-named storm on record in the basic. The previous ‘L’ storm record was held by Luis which formed on August 29, 1995, according to Accuweather.
Laura has been blamed for at least 12 deaths in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Haitian civil protection officials said they had received reports a 10-year-old girl was killed when a tree fell on a home in the southern coastal town of Anse-a-Pitres, on the border with the Dominican Republic.
Haiti’s prime minister said at least eight other people died and two were missing.
In the Dominican Republic, relatives told reporters a collapsed wall killed a mother and her young son.
Hundreds of thousands were without power in the Dominican Republic amid heavy flooding in both countries.
Meanwhile, energy companies moved to cut production at US Gulf Coast oil refineries on Monday after shutting half the area’s offshore crude oil output and evacuating employees as Marco and Laura took aim at the coast.
The Interior Department said Monday that 281 platforms had been evacuated by around midday. That’s nearly half of those normally with workers on site.
The department estimated that 82 per cent of oil production and 57 per cent of natural gas production in the Gulf has been shut down.
Producers have shut more than 1 million barrels per day of Gulf Coast offshore oil production, 9 per cent of the nation’s total output.
Motiva Enterprises on Monday started preparations to idle its large Port Arthur, Texas, crude oil refinery, said people familiar with plant operations. Total SA also reduced production at its refinery in the same city, according to people familiar with its operation.
Gulf Coast refiners and offshore producers account for 45 per cent of all US oil processing and 17 per cent of oil output.
Vessel traffic was closed at the Ports of New Orleans, Baton Rouge and from the lower Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.
Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, the largest Gulf Coast oil-export facility, also halted operations at its marine terminal on Sunday.
Other refineries, including Exxon Mobil, Valero Energy and Royal Dutch Shell, maintained operations at Louisiana plants as Marco arrived on Monday, people familiar with those refineries said.
SOURCE: Daily Mail, Valarie Edwards