Hurricane Laura approaches U.S. Gulf Coast forcing tens of thousands to evacuate

(Reuters) – Hurricane Laura was bearing down on the U.S. Gulf Coast on Tuesday, threatening fierce winds and storm surge from San Luis Pass, Texas to Ocean Springs, Mississippi and prompting thousands to evacuate before an expected Thursday landfall.

The storm strengthened to a hurricane as its center moved northwest over Cuba early Tuesday at 16 miles per hour (26 kph)with sustained winds of 70 miles per hour (110 kph), and it was due to intensify over the next two days, the National Hurricane Center said.

The Texas city of Galveston imposed a mandatory evacuation order on Tuesday after the storm’s track veered westward overnight towards to the island community of some 50,000 people. The storm was 620 miles (1,000 km) southeast of Galveston on Tuesday morning.

“It’s imperative that you make plans this morning to secure your homes and move you and your family to safety off island,” acting Mayor Craig Brown said in a statement on Tuesday.

More than 330,000 residents living in Jefferson and Orange Counties in eastern Texas were also placed under a mandatory evacuation order on Tuesday.

On Monday, the mayor of Port Arthur, Texas, an oil town of 54,000 people 85 miles (137 km) east of Houston, ordered a mandatory evacuation, giving residents until 6 a.m. on Tuesday to leave.

Laura is projected to make landfall in the Texas-Louisiana border region late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning as a major hurricane, possibly Category 3 on the 5-step Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane intensity, the NHC said.

“This has the potential to be the strongest hurricane to hit since Hurricane Rita,” Louisiana Governor John Edwards said at a Monday evening news conference, referring to the Category 5 hurricane that hit in 2005.

The storm comes on the heels of Tropical Storm Marco, which weakened sooner than expected and made landfall on Monday in Louisiana before dissipating.

Laura skirted the southern coast of Cuba on Monday but did not cause as much damage as it did in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where it killed at least 10 people.

The coincidence of Laura’s storm surge with high tide along the Gulf Coast from High Island, Texas to Morgan City, Louisiana could result in water levels rising as high as 11 feet, the Miami-based forecaster said.

Rainfall along the coast near the Texas-Louisiana border, as much as a foot of water in some places, was expected to cause widespread flooding.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Tropical Storm Laura to become a hurricane as it heads toward U.S.

By Jonathan Allen and Maria Caspani

(Reuters) – Tropical Storm Laura strengthened in the Caribbean on Monday and was poised to accelerate into a hurricane, while Tropical Storm Marco weakened sooner than expected, sparing the U.S. Gulf Coast from two simultaneous hurricanes that had been forecast.

The dual storms have taken offline nearly 10% of the United States’ crude oil production, as energy companies shuttered operations to ride out the weather.

The changed forecast from the National Hurricane Center bought a little more time for residents along Louisiana’s coast to prepare for the one-two punch. Marco could still bring dangerous winds and rain on Monday evening, with Laura forecast to make landfall on the U.S. Gulf Coast on Wednesday night.

“Having two storms in the Gulf at one particular time made the last few days pretty stressful,” said Archie Chaisson, the president of Lafourche Parish on the Louisiana coast.

The coronavirus pandemic had complicated preparations, Chaisson said, with officials modifying their shelter plans to ensure social distancing and the wearing of face coverings.

HOWLING WINDS

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,” 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 toward the Gulf of Mexico at 20 miles per hour (31 kilometers per hour), 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 U.S. 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 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 U.S. 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% of the nation’s total output, facing a storm that is forecast to become a damaging Category 2 hurricane.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Maria Caspani in New York, Marc Frank in Havana, Kate Chappell in Kingston and Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Maria drenches Dominican Republic after hammering Puerto Rico

A man looks for valuables in the damaged house of a relative after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017.

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria lashed parts of the Dominican Republic with heavy rain and high winds and headed northwest in the Caribbean on Thursday after making a direct hit on Puerto Rico that caused severe flooding and cut power to the entire island.

Maria has killed at least 10 people as it raged through the Caribbean, the second major hurricane to do so this month.

Maria was carrying sustained winds of up to 115 miles per hour (185 km per hour) as it moved away from the Dominican Republic on a track that would take it near the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas on Thursday night and Friday, the U.S. National Hurricane Canter said in an 8 a.m. ET (1200 GMT) advisory.

Maria was ranked a Category 4 storm, near the top of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, with winds of up to 155 mph (250 kph), when it made landfall on Puerto Rico on Wednesday as the strongest storm to hit the U.S. territory in nearly 90 years.

It ripped apart homes, snapped power lines and turned roads into raging debris-laden rivers as it cut across the island of 3.4 million people.

Damaged electrical installations are seen after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria en Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garci

Damaged electrical installations are seen after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria en Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In Old San Juan, Plaza de Colon, one of the grand squares adorning the colonial heart of the capital, was choked with broken branches and trees felled by the storm. Pigeons paced the square looking for scraps, their plumage threadbare.

Aiden Short, 28, a debris management worker from London, said he had headed to the British Virgin Islands to help clean up the devastation of Hurricane Irma when Maria trapped him in San Juan.

“I was supposed to have come as a professional, but now I’ve just had to weather the storm,” Short said. “But now it looks like I might be useful here.”

All of Puerto Rico was under a flash flood warning early on Thursday as the tail end of the storm could bring another 4 to 8 inches (10-20 cm) of rain on Thursday, bringing the storm’s total to 35 inches (89 cm) in parts of the island, the NHC said.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said there was one death reported so far, a man struck by a piece of lumber hurled by high winds.

“It’s nothing short of a major disaster,” he said in a CNN interview, adding it might take months for the island’s electricity to be completely restored. He imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew that runs through Saturday.

Damages are seen in a supermarket after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017.

Damages are seen in a supermarket after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

MORE EXPECTED TO SEEK SHELTER

The government did not yet have an estimate of how many homes and businesses were destroyed by the storm. But authorities expected to see more people go to shelters on Thursday as they realized how badly their homes were hit, said Pedro Cerame, a spokesman for Rossello.

Thousands went to government shelters during the storm.

The island’s recovery could be complicated by its financial woes as it faces the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history. Both its government and the public utility have filed for bankruptcy protection amid disputes with creditors.

Maria was about 95 miles (150 kms) north of Punta Cana, on the east coast of the Dominican Republic on Thursday morning, the NHC said.

Punta Cana, a popular tourist area, was hit with wind gusts of 58 mph (93 kph) and Maria was forecast to bring storm surges, when hurricanes push ocean water dangerously over normal levels, of up to 6 feet (1.83 m) in the Dominican Republic, it said.

Maria was forecast to move north in the Atlantic Ocean over the weekend. It currently looked unlikely to hit the continental United States.

It was a rare Category 5 storm when it struck Dominica on Monday night, damaging about 95 percent of the roofs on the island of 73,000 people, one of the poorest in the Caribbean, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

Passing early Wednesday just west of St. Croix, home to about 55,000 people, Maria damaged an estimated 65 percent to 70 percent of the island’s buildings, said Holland Redfield, who served six terms in the U.S. Virgin Islands senate.

President Donald Trump declared a major disaster in the U.S. Virgin Islands and ordered federal aid to supplement recovery efforts, the White House said.

The U.S. and British Virgin Islands were also hit this month by Hurricane Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record. It left a trail of destruction in several Caribbean islands and Florida, killing at least 84 people.

 

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut in San Juan; Writing by Jon Herskovitz and Scott Malone; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Frances Kerry)

 

Hurricane Matthew hammers Haiti and Cuba, bears down on U.S.

Damage from Hurricane Matthew

By Makini Brice and Sarah Marsh

LES CAYES, Haiti/GUANTANAMO, Cuba (Reuters) – Hurricane Matthew, the fiercest Caribbean storm in almost a decade, hit Cuba and Haiti with winds of well over 100 miles-per-hour on Tuesday, pummeling towns, farmland and resorts and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to take cover.

Dubbed by the U.N. the worst humanitarian crisis to hit Haiti since a devastating 2010 earthquake, the Category Four hurricane unleashed torrential rain on the island of Hispaniola that Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic.

As it barreled towards the United States, the eye of the storm had moved off the northeastern coast of Cuba by Tuesday night, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

At least four people were killed in the Dominican Republic by collapsing walls and mudslides, as well as two in Haiti, where communications in the worst-hit areas were down, making it hard for authorities to assess the scale of the damage.

“Haiti is facing the largest humanitarian event witnessed since the earthquake six years ago,” said Mourad Wahba, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative for Haiti.

Over 200,000 people were killed in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, by the January 2010 earthquake.

Matthew was blowing sustained winds of 140 mph (230 kph) or more for much of Tuesday, though as night fell, the windspeed eased to about 130 mph, the NHC said.

Early reports suggested that Cuba had not been hit as hard as Haiti, where the situation was described as “catastrophic” in the port town of Les Cayes.

In the Cuban city of Guantanamo, streets emptied as people moved to shelters or inside their homes.

Matthew is likely to remain a powerful hurricane through at least Thursday night as it sweeps through the Bahamas towards Florida and the Atlantic coast of the southern United States, the NHC said. The storm is expected to be very near the east cost of Florida by Thursday evening, the center added.

The governor of South Carolina ordered the evacuation of more than 1 million people from Wednesday afternoon.

With communications out across most of Haiti and a key bridge impassable because of a swollen river, there was no immediate word on the full extent of potential casualties and damage from the storm in the poorest country in the Americas.

But Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters in Washington the U.S. Navy was considering sending an aircraft carrier and other ships to the region to aid relief efforts.

The United States has already offered Haiti the use of some helicopters, said Haitian Interior Minister Francois Anick Joseph, who added that damage to housing and crops in the country was apparently extensive.

Twice destroyed by hurricanes in the 18th century, Les Cayes was hit hard by Matthew.

“The situation in Les Cayes is catastrophic, the city is flooded, you have trees lying in different places and you can barely move around. The wind has damaged many houses,” said Deputy Mayor Marie Claudette Regis Delerme, who fled a house in the town of about 70,000 when the wind ripped the roof off.

One man died as the storm crashed through his home in the nearby beach town of Port Salut, Haiti’s civil protection service said. He had been too sick to leave for a shelter, officials said. The body of a second man who went missing at sea was also recovered, the government said. Another fisherman was killed in heavy seas over the weekend as the storm approached.

STARTING FROM SCRATCH

As much as 3 feet (1 meter) of rain was forecast to fall over hills in Haiti that are largely deforested and prone to flash floods and mudslides, threatening villages as well as shantytowns in the capital Port-au-Prince.

The hurricane has hit Haiti at a time when tens of thousands of people are still living in flimsy tents and makeshift dwellings because of the 2010 earthquake.

“Farms have been hit really hard. Things like plantains, beans, rice – they’re all gone,” said Hervil Cherubin, country director in Haiti for Heifer International, a nonprofit organization that is working with 30,000 farming families across Haiti. “Most of the people are going to have to start all over again. Whatever they accumulated the last few years has been all washed out.”

Matthew was churning around 20 miles (32 km) northwest of the eastern tip of Cuba at 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT). It was moving north at about 8 miles per hour (13 kph), the NHC said.

Cuba’s Communist government traditionally puts extensive efforts into saving lives and property in the face of storms, and authorities have spent days organizing teams of volunteers to move residents to safety and secure property.

The storm thrashed the tourist town of Baracoa in the province of Guantanamo, passing close to the disputed U.S. Naval base and military prison.

The U.S. Navy ordered the evacuation of 700 spouses and children along with 65 pets of service personnel as the storm approached. U.S. President Barack Obama had earlier canceled a trip to Florida scheduled for Wednesday because of the potential impact of the storm, the White House said.

A hurricane watch was in effect for Florida from an area just north of Miami Beach to the Volusia-Brevard county line, near Cape Canaveral, which the storm could reach on Thursday, the hurricane center said.

Tropical storm or hurricane conditions could affect parts of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina later this week, even if the center of Matthew remained offshore, the NHC said.

Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Florida on Monday, designating resources for evacuations and shelters and putting the National Guard on standby.

(Reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince and Makini Brice in Les Cayes; Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Cuba and Jorge Pineda in Dominican Republic; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel and Dave Graham; Editing by Simon Gardner, Sandra Maler and Nick Macfie)