BATON ROUGE, LOUISIANA (REUTERS) - Tropical Storm Laura is forecast to gain strength rapidly as it moves into the Gulf of Mexico late Monday (Aug 24), and is expected to become a hurricane before hitting the Texas or Louisiana coast within 48 hours, forecasters said.
Residents along the US Gulf Coast prepared for what could be deadly winds, rains, and storm surges.
Laura comes on the heels of Tropical Storm Marco, which weakened sooner than expected.
The rare threat of two possible hurricanes in the Gulf at once, however, took nearly 10 per cent of the United States’ crude oil production offline, as energy companies shuttered operations to ride out the weather.
The National Hurricane Centre warned that potentially deadly storm surges could hit from San Luis Pass, Texas, to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, in the next two days.
The mayor of Port Arthur, Texas, an oil town of 54,000 people 137km east of Houston, issued a mandatory evacuation, giving residents until 6am on Tuesday to leave. Several other cities asked for voluntary evacuations.
Ms Lina Hidalgo, the chief executive of Harris County, which includes Houston, urged residents to be prepared and not "to get cocky" by failing to prepare for the worst.
"We’re leaving no stone unturned with our preparation. Now it is your turn," Ms Hidalgo told a news conference.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner at the same news conference urged residents to prepare, though he added Laura was not expected to stall over the region and dump as much rain as Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which led to deadly flooding.
Laura traced the southern coast of Cuba on Monday morning, but the brunt of the storm was offshore, helping the largest island nation in the Caribbean avoid serious damage after Laura killed at least 10 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The storm downed trees in Cuba, ripped away flimsy roofs and caused minor flooding on Sunday evening, according to residents and news reports. In Jamaica, there were reports of landslides and flooded roads.
"I slept well last night, except when the wind howled," Ms Nuris Lopez, a hairdresser, said by telephone from a town in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains in Cuba's eastern Granma province.
Laura was heading towards the Gulf of Mexico at 20 miles per hour (31kmh), according to the NHC. By Tuesday, it was expected to have reached hurricane strength. By Wednesday night, stronger still, it was expected to hit the US Gulf Coast, the NHC said.
By then, it could be a Category 2 or 3 hurricane on the 5-step Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane intensity, said Mr Chris Kerr, a meteorologist at DTN, an energy, agriculture and weather data provider.
OIL HIT HARD
Despite Marco's weakening, with the NHC predicting it would slow to a tropical depression by Monday night, that storm still threatened to soak the Louisiana coast.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent teams to operations centers in Louisiana and Texas.
This year's hurricane season has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, forcing many people to weigh the risks of leaving their homes and potentially exposing themselves to the virus.
Officials in Louisiana said that testing for Covid-19 was suspended in the state on Monday and Tuesday.
Energy companies moved to cut production at US Gulf Coast oil refineries after shutting half the area's offshore crude oil output as back-to-back storms took aim at the coast.
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, facing a storm that is forecast to become a damaging Category 2 hurricane.