US Gulf Coast Faces Threat From Pair of Tropical Storms
Back-to-back tropical storms pose a combined threat 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, Tropical Storm Marco is weakening but still rushing toward an Aug. 24 landfall in Louisiana. It threatens a dangerous surge in coastal waters that could combine later with the larger and deadlier Tropical Storm Laura, which is forecast to strengthen into a hurricane on Aug. 25.
“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 almost 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.
“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,” said Todd Crawford, chief meteorologist at the Weather Co., an IBM business.
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 as more than half the nation’s gas processing.
Energy Transfer LP, which ranks No. 44 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest private carriers in North America, shut in its Stingray Pipeline, which hauls gas from offshore fields to Louisiana, in anticipation of the storms. Ports in Louisiana are limiting operations or evacuating, and ship movements have been restricted in some areas. The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, a major crude import hub, has suspended marine terminal operations.
Noble Corp. is already moving two offshore rigs, while BP Plc evacuated employees from four platforms and shut in some production. Royal Dutch Shell Plc evacuated employees and idled output at the majority of its Gulf operations, according to a notice on its website.
Marco is expected to approach the coast of Louisiana on Aug. 24, then turn westward and travel near or over the coast through Aug. 25 before weakening. The center of Laura will move over the Caribbean Sea just offshore the southern coast of Cuba on Aug. 24 and move into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico through the evening.
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 Aug. 22. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, and Mississippi Gov. 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 inundated by Marco, said Jeff Masters, a meteorologist with Yale Climate Connections.
Due to a 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.