Back-to-back storms — Hurricane Marco and Tropical Storm Laura — will deliver a double hammer blow to the U.S. Gulf Coast this week, where more than half of offshore oil production is already shut and residents from Texas to Florida are warily watching the skies.
From the south, Hurricane Marco is rushing toward a Monday landfall in Louisiana, and while it will be damaging, larger and deadlier Tropical Storm Laura is stoking concern among meteorologists because of its potential to strengthen as it traverses warm Gulf waters.
“There is an old saying ‘never trust a storm that goes into the Gulf,’ especially if it is large,” said Jim Rouiller, lead meteorologist with the Energy Weather Group. “The notion of rapid intensification is definitely on the table. I grow more concerned about Texas.”
The double threat has already prompted evacuations of offshore energy platforms, and nearly 58% of oil output and 45% of natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico has been shut, according to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety Environmental Enforcement. Laura is expected to become a Category 2 hurricane on the five-step Saffir Simpson scale later this week and may become even stronger, 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.
Energy platforms in the Gulf of Mexico that account for as much as 17% of America’s oil production and 5% of 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 in quick succession threaten to keep operations shut in for longer and cut into energy supplies more than usual.
Marco’s energy impact will be mainly confined to offshore installations, but Laura could cause problems for refineries and fuel-distribution hubs from Houston to Louisiana, Rouiller said. Offshore platforms were retrofitted after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina to endure stronger storms, but onshore flooding could threaten the 45% of American fuel-making capacity that’s located along the Gulf Coast, as well more than half the nation’s gas processing.
Marco is expected to strike southern Louisiana Monday, near New Orleans, which was devastated by Katrina, and then skirt west along the coast before it breaks up over Texas on Wednesday. Laura will then follow it, landing somewhere between Houston and Morgan City, Louisiana, and then hook north into Arkansas before making its way into western Kentucky on Friday.
Tallying the cost is tricky because of the uncertainty in the tracks, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler with Enki Research. If they both hit rural areas of Louisiana, damage 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.
Anticipating a double dose of destructive winds, storm surges and flooding rains, officials in Louisiana shored up coastal defenses on Saturday. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, and Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves have all declared emergencies.
Marco’s initial strike could make matters worse if Laura ends up in the same area. It could take several days for Marco’s coastal storm surge to subside, and if Laura strikes nearby it could push a wall of water into areas still inunduated by Marco, said Jeff Masters, a meteorologist with Yale Climate Connections.
Due to climate-change driven sea level rise, ocean levels in the Gulf are about 6 inches (15 centimeters) higher than they were when Katrina came ashore 15 years ago, FM Global, a commercial insurer, said in a notice to clients. The Gulf also is warmer than normal this year, which will fuel both storms as they near land.
Laura has already killed at least seven people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the Associated Press reported. Flooding rains sent mud sliding down steep mountain passes there and in Cuba.
Thirteen storms have now formed across the Atlantic this year, including five that hit the U.S. It is the fastest start to a hurricane season in records going back to 1851, said Phil Klotzbach, a storm researcher at Colorado State University.
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