Back-to-back storms are rolling toward the U.S. Gulf Coast where they’ll come ashore in days as hurricanes, prompting evacuations of off-shore energy platforms and setting residents and officials on edge from Texas to Florida.
The systems, a double tropical strike that could cause billions of dollars in damage, are approaching from different directions. Marco is smaller and coming from the south, while Laura, with the potential to be even stronger, approaches out of the Caribbean.
In the potential target zone for both storms is New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina almost exactly 15 years ago.“There is still plenty of uncertainty,” said Bradley Harvey, a meteorologist with the commercial forecaster Maxar. “Basically we could have two hurricanes making landfall within the Gulf production region in the next couple of days.”The double threat has already caused evacuations on off-shore energy platforms, and about 13% of oil and 4% of natural gas production have been shut in, according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Both Marco and Laura are expected to become at least Category 1 hurricanes on the five-step Saffir Simpson scale later this week.
Energy platforms in the Gulf of Mexico that account for as much as 17% of America’s oil production and 5% of natural gas output are designed to withstand storms of this magnitude; they regularly shut and restart as systems pass through. But two hurricanes roiling the region one in quick succession threaten to keep operations shut in for longer and cut into energy supplies more than usual.
The bigger threat the storms pose to energy markets is flooding once they come ashore. More than 45% of America’s fuel refining capacity is located along the Gulf Coast, as well over half its natural-gas processing.
Noble Corp. is already moving two offshore rigs out of the storms’ path. BP Plc has begun evacuating employees from its four operated platforms in the Gulf and is beginning to shut in production. Royal Dutch Shell is evacuating employees and shutting in production at the majority of its operations in the Gulf of Mexico ahead of tropical storms Laura and Marco, the company says in an emailed statement.
Tallying the cost is tricky because there’s uncertainty in the tracks, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler with Enki Research. If current forecasts hold up, damage from the pair might be limited to about $1 billion, but if Laura shifts west, closer to Houston, that price-tag could rise to $5 billion. Likewise, if the storms hit New Orleans, damages could range from $2 billion to $3 billion.Further complicating matters is that there’s a growing chance that Laura could become a Category 3 or stronger storm as it enters the Gulf, said Todd Crawford, chief meteorologist at the Weather Company, an IBM business.“My guess is that Texas is the final destination for Laura at this point, and I’m afraid Laura will be our first major hurricane of 2020,” Crawford said.
Marco will strike Monday, likely in southern Louisiana, followed by Laura on Thursday in roughly the same area, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. Track forecasts can be off by more than 100 miles several days in advance, so residents from Texas to Florida should be on guard.
Hurricanes Fay and Gonzalo hit Bermuda five days apart in 2014, but a double-strike in the Gulf is almost unheard of.“There is virtually no U.S. precedent for two hurricane landfalls in such close proximity in time and space,” Bob Henson, meteorologist with Yale Climate Connections, said in a tweet.
Anticipating a double dose of destructive winds, storm surges and flooding rains, officials in Louisiana were shoring up coastal defenses on Saturday. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves have both declared emergencies.
Laura is already bringing flooding rains to the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba that could kill many people in mudslides. Haiti is particularly prone to severe flooding from tropical storms and hurricanes.Tropical Storm Marco is the 13th of the Atlantic hurricane season, the fastest on record that number has been reached in data going back to 1851, said Phil Klotzbach, a storm researcher at Colorado State University.
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