One dead, six rescued and a dozen missing after boat capsizes off Louisiana coast

(Reuters) – One person has died and six others have been rescued after a commercial “lift boat” used to service oil rigs capsized in hurricane force winds several miles south of Port Fourchon on the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. Coast Guard said on Wednesday.

A dozen people were still missing after the 129-foot commercial vessel capsized in rough seas about 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, officials said.

Two Coast Guard cutters, a military helicopter, airplane and a small fleet of volunteer private vessels were involved in the searched operation, said Coast Guard Captain Will Watson.

“Unfortunately one person was recovered deceased on the surface of the water,” he said, adding that the winds were about 80 miles per hour (129 km per hour) to 90 mph at the time of the accident.

Two people were rescued by the Coast Guard and four others were pulled from the waters by people on other vessels, he said.

“My heart and the collective hearts of our team goes out to the families,” Watson said, adding that they are working to find other survivors.

The high winds, with some hail and flooding are expected to continue in southeastern Louisiana, according to the National Weather Service. There is a threat of severe weather to overnight in the region and a flash flood watch is in effect till Thursday morning.

The vessel is owned by Seacor Marine, a Houston, Texas-based transportation company, according to media reports.

A representative for the company was not immediately available for comment.

(Reporting by Aakriti Bhalla in Bengaluru; Additional reporting and writing by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by William Maclean and Mike Harrison)

Boston Dynamics dog robot ‘Spot’ learns new tricks on BP oil rig

(Reuters) – Boston Dynamics’ dog-like robot ‘Spot’ is learning new tricks.

Working on an oil rig operated by BP Plc nearly 190 miles (305 km) offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, the company is programming Spot to read gauges, look for corrosion, map out the facility and even sniff out methane on its Mad Dog rig.

Adam Ballard, BP’s facilities technology manager, said tasks performed by Spot will make the work on the rig safer by reducing the number of people. It also will free up personnel to do other work.

“Several hours a day, several operators will walk the facility; read gauges; listen for noise that doesn’t sound right; look out at the horizon for anomalies, boats that may not be caught on radar; look for sheens,” Ballard said.

“What we’re doing with Spot is really trying to replicate that observation piece,” Ballard said, adding that an operator could then review the information from a central location.

Spot also has an integrated gas sensor that is programmed to shut the robot down if it detects a methane leak.

“We believe a lot of that up-front, remote work preparation can be done with a remotely-controlled robot… being able to pan, tilt, zoom and really understand the entire area in real conditions, real time,” Ballard said.

Boston Dynamics does not release terms of its sales agreements with companies, but the Spot robot model can be purchased for $74,500.

BP hopes in the future to expand Spot’s data gathering capability to augment areas where humans are limited.

“We’ve got multispectral imaging that basically you can see many bands across that spectrum… to be able to see things that the human eye can’t see,” said Ballard.

(Reporting by Catherine Koppel; editing by Diane Craft and Rosalba O’Brien)

Storm-weary U.S. offshore energy firms prep for massive hurricane

By Erwin Seba

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Oil and gas workers withdrew en masse from U.S. offshore production facilities and onshore refineries began preparations on Wednesday as Hurricane Delta was forecast to grow into a powerful storm over the Caribbean on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Delta’s winds declined to 105 miles per hour (169 kph) as it tore across Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula early Wednesday. It is expected to enter the Gulf of Mexico and re-intensify into a Category 3 storm, the National Hurricane Center said.

Oil producers had evacuated 57 production facilities in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico by Tuesday and halted 540,000 barrels per day of oil and 232 million cubic feet per day of natural gas production. The region accounts for about 17% of U.S. oil output.

Onshore energy facilities and export ports began securing operations. Royal Dutch Shell Plc was preparing three refineries in Convent, Geismar and Norco, Louisiana, for Delta’s arrival. Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, the sole deep water port on the Gulf of Mexico, halted seaborne exports and imports.

After weakening over the Yucatan, Delta is expected to re-strengthen and grow into a massive storm. A “life-threatening storm surge and strong winds are likely over a large portion of the northwestern and northern Gulf coast,” the NHC said.

Energy prices were mixed. Natural gas futures were up nearly 2% on storm shut-ins and export disruptions. U.S. crude oil and gasoline futures each fell about 3%.

Delta is expected to strike the U.S. Gulf Coast on the weekend as the 10th named storm to make a U.S. landfall this year, eclipsing a record that has held since 1916.

Oil companies have had to evacuate workers repeatedly this year with departures and returns complicated by pandemic related quarantines and virus testing for offshore staff.

Delta’s evacuations were at least the sixth time that some companies have had to remove staff and curtail production since June.

W&T Offshore Inc, one of the smaller Gulf of Mexico producers, estimated the storms cost it 9,000 barrels of oil and gas per day in the latest quarter, more than a fifth of its targeted output.

Phillips 66 said Delta would delay the restart of its Lake Charles refinery, a Louisiana plant shut by August’s Hurricane Laura. A second plant, on the Louisiana coast, has remained closed since a mid-September storm for maintenance.

Shell, the largest Gulf of Mexico offshore oil producer by volume, evacuated staff from nine facilities and Chevron Corp evacuated and shut production on all its Gulf of Mexico platforms. BP Plc, BHP, Occidental Petroleum Corp, and Murphy Oil pulled workers out and halted some production.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba; writing by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Leslie Adler and Marguerita Choy)

Hurricane Delta weakens before landfall near Mexico’s Cancun

By Anthony Esposito

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) – Hurricane Delta rapidly lost strength before landfall near top Caribbean getaway Cancun on Wednesday, potentially saving the area’s hotels, condos and Mayan indigenous villages from an onslaught threatened when it was a menacing Category 4 storm.

Delta had weakened to Category 2 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity, with winds of 110 miles per hour (175 km per hour), by the time it hit the coast close to Puerto Morelos, a fishing village popular with tourists.

Cancun scrambled to shutter shops and evacuate tourists from beach hotels on Tuesday as Delta rapidly gathered strength over the warm Caribbean and looked to be one of the strongest hurricanes to threaten Cancun in years.

Even as a weaker storm, Delta’s arrival is a blow to Mexican efforts to revive tourism in the surrounding beach-lined state of Quintana Roo, where the industry has been battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I want to go home, this is crazy,” said Dee Harris, a 29-year-old from Michigan who came to Cancun with his partner and had been due to leave before the storm led to the cancellation of their flight. “The vacation was good before this.”

Delta is also disrupting the oil industry, with companies shutting down offshore production platforms and withdrawing workers.

Peak sustained winds of 84 mph (135 km/h) were recorded at a weather station in Cancun, which is about 24 miles (38.5 km) from snorkeling spot Puerto Morelos close to the eye of the storm.

Delta was expected to pass through Quintana Roo in 10-14 hours, state governor Carlos Joaquin said.

“Hopefully, that speed means it won’t do us so much damage,” Joaquin told Mexican radio.

Slow-moving hurricanes often do more destruction than those with faster lateral movement because they have more time to unleash their force on structures.

Delta is expected to lose some wind power over the peninsula before gathering strength again in the Gulf of Mexico.

On Tuesday, residents queued at supermarkets to stock up on provisions in anticipation of disruptions, while the state government readied shelters that need extra space due to coronavirus social-distancing requirements.

Officials ordered the evacuation of Cancun’s hotel zone and other coastal areas, while shop workers boarded up windows.

A hurricane watch was in place from the beach town of Tulum westwards, including Cozumel.

Water levels could rise by up to 9 feet (3 m) over normal tide conditions due to Delta, the NHC said.

The Yucatan peninsula had already taken a hit at the weekend from Hurricane Gamma, a smaller storm that damaged property and forced restaurants and other attractions to close.

(Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

U.S. energy firms tally damages from Hurricane Sally, begin restarts

By Erwin Seba

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Storm-tossed U.S. offshore energy producers and exporters began clearing debris on Thursday from Hurricane Sally and booting up idle Gulf of Mexico operations after hunkering down for five days.

The storm toppled trees, flooded streets and left almost 500,000 homes and businesses in Alabama and Florida without power. Sally became a tropical depression on Thursday, leaving widespread flooding along its path with up to a foot (30 cm) of rain falling in parts of Florida and Georgia.

Crews returned to at least 30 offshore oil and gas platforms. Chevron Corp began restaffing its Blind Faith and Petronius platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, following Murphy Oil Corp.’s restart.

Bristow Group, which transports oil workers from a Galliano, Louisiana, heliport, resumed crew-change flights to facilities in the west and central Gulf of Mexico.

“We are making flights offshore and experiencing a slight increase in outbound passengers,” said heliport manager Lani Moneyhon.

The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, a deep water oil port that handles supertankers, reopened its marine terminal after suspending operations over the weekend.

Sally had shut 508,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil production and 805 million cubic feet of natural gas, more than a quarter of U.S. Gulf of Mexico output, and halted petrochemical exports all along the Gulf Coast.

About 1.1 million bpd of U.S. refining capacity were offline on Wednesday, according to the U.S. Energy Department, including two plants under repair since Hurricane Laura and another halted by weak demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Crude weakened early Thursday with U.S. futures down a fraction and trading below $40 a barrel. Gasoline futures inched higher in early trading, continuing gains this week.

Phillips 66, which shut its 255,600-bpd Alliance, Louisiana, oil refinery ahead of the storm, said it was advancing planned maintenance at the facility and would keep processing halted.

Royal Dutch Shell’s Mobile, Alabama, chemical plant and refinery reported no serious damage from an initial survey, the company said. Chevron said is a Pascagoula, Mississippi, oil refinery operated normally through the storm.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba; Writing by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)

Hurricane’s heavy rains to dampen fuel demand, offshore sites closed

By Erwin Seba

HOUSTON (Reuters) – More than one-quarter of U.S. Gulf of Mexico offshore oil and gas production remains shut due to Hurricane Sally, and as it moves inland, it is expected to cut fuel demand in the U.S. southeast as forecasters warn of life-threatening flooding.

The storm made landfall on Gulf Shores, Alabama, as a Category Two hurricane on Wednesday morning. Oil prices rose early Wednesday, attributed in part to the expectation of a temporary drop in U.S. production.

Nearly 500,000 bpd of offshore crude oil production and 759 million cubic feet per day (mmcfd) of natural gas output were shut in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, according to the U.S. Interior Department. That’s roughly one-third of the shut-ins caused by Hurricane Laura, which landed further west in August.

Oil and chemical ports along the Mississippi River were moving to reopen with restrictions and some offshore operators were preparing to return workers to offshore platforms on Thursday.

The hurricane was between Gulf Shores and Pensacola, heading northeast at 3 mph (5 kph), with sustained winds of 100 mph (160 kph), the National Hurricane Center said in an update at around 7 a.m. CDT (1200 GMT).

OIL PRICES RISE

Crude oil futures rose more than 2% on Wednesday, extending the previous session’s gains caused by the shut-ins and an industry report forecasting a drop in U.S. crude stockpiles.

“Even if the weather keeps production shut for a couple of days, the sheer volume of its size is enough for the market to breathe a bit,” said Rystad Energy senior oil markets analyst Paola Rodriguez-Masiu in a comment.

The NHC earlier warned Sally could drop 10 to 20 inches (25-50 cm) of rain and up to 30 inches in some spots. It warned of “catastrophic and life-threatening” flooding along portions of the northern Gulf Coast.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba in Houston and Stephanie Kelly in New York; editing by xxx)

Sally strengthens to hurricane, bears down on U.S. Gulf Coast

By Jennifer Hiller

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Louisiana and Mississippi residents were under evacuation orders on Monday as Hurricane Sally churned across the Gulf of Mexico, strengthening to a hurricane ahead of expected landfall on Tuesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

The second storm in less than a month to threaten the region, Sally was headed toward a slow-motion landfall on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Residents from Louisiana to Florida were told to expect heavy rain, storm surge and high winds.

Sally is the 18th named storm in the Atlantic this year and will be the eighth of tropical storm or hurricane strength to hit the United States – something “very rare if not a record,” said Dan Kottlowski, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather.

Mississippi and Louisiana issued mandatory evacuation orders to residents of low-lying areas, and Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards appealed for a federal disaster declaration and advised people living in Sally’s path to flee.

“We have to make sure that everything is tied down and out of the way so it doesn’t float away or become airborne,” said Steve Forstall, a Bay St. Louis port employee. In the coastal town, located roughly 50 miles (80 km) northeast of New Orleans, water from the bay was spilling onto the beach roadway early on Monday. Workers were seen boarding up homes and securing items like trash cans that can become projectiles in high winds.

The U.S. Coast Guard was limiting traffic from the Port of New Orleans, while energy companies slowed or cut refinery output and scrambled to pull workers from offshore oil and gas production platforms.

At 1 p.m. CDT (1800 GMT), Sally was 125 miles (210 km) east-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, packing sustained winds of 90 miles (145 km) per hour, according to the NHC.

It said the storm’s advance would slow in the next two days, dumping 8 to 16-inches on the coast and causing widespread river flooding.

Residents of southwest Louisiana are still clearing debris and tens of thousands of homes are without power after Hurricane Laura left a trail of destruction. Sally’s path remains east of that hard-hit area.

Damage from Sally is expected to reach $2 billion to $3 billion, but could exceed that if the storm’s heaviest rainfall happens over land instead of in the Gulf, said Chuck Watson of Enki Research, which models and tracks tropical storms.

(Reporting by Jennifer Hiller and Gary McWilliams; additional reporting by Catherine Koppel in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Dan Grebler)

U.S. energy firms tally hurricane damage, plot restarts as Laura races north

By Erwin Seba

HOUSTON (Reuters) – U.S. energy companies on Thursday were organizing crews and beginning to review offshore Gulf of Mexico platforms and assess damage to coastal operations as Hurricane Laura took its fierce winds inland.

The storm hit Louisiana early Thursday with 150 mile-per-hour (240 kph) winds, damaging buildings, knocking down trees and cutting power to more than 400,000 people in Louisiana and Texas. Its storm surge was less than predicted, sparing inland plants from feared flooding.

Laura passed over Lake Charles, Louisiana, and its oil refineries overnight and was moving quickly north toward Arkansas on Thursday.

Offshore operators were busy scheduling reconnaissance flights over the more than 300 offshore platforms and drilling rigs whose crews evacuated last week. Laura tore through the Gulf of Mexico’s prime oil production fields, with first assessments due Thursday for pipelines and platforms.

Exxon Mobil Corp said it was contacting employees of its 369,000 barrel-per-day (bpd) oil refinery and chemical plant in Beaumont, Texas, and preparing a preliminary tally of damages. The large plant was one of six plants along the Gulf Coast’s refinery row that shut this week ahead of the storm.

Even with no or little damage, refineries take days to resume production from a cold shut and the widespread power outages in the region and evacuations could slow the process further.

Utilities reported more than 650,000 customers in Texas and Louisiana were without power on Thursday and at least one reconnaissance flight was canceled because of travel disruptions.

Oil producers were preparing to fly over evacuated offshore platforms on Thursday. Some 1.5 million barrels of oil, and or 1.65 billion cubic feet of natural gas output were halted by well closures on Wednesday.

Companies have regularly scheduled crew changes beginning on Saturday and could take the first steps to resuming production this weekend if conditions allow, said Lani Moneyhon, manager of Bristow Group’s Galliano heliport. The company provides transport to offshore producers.

Energy firms typically fly over platforms looking for damage, and later conduct walk-throughs by safety experts before crews can return. It can take several days to run reviews and schedule crew returns.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba and Gary McWilliams; 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)

New Orleans renters face toxic mix of crumbling homes, weak rights, eviction worries

By Kathleen Flynn and Makini Brice

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – Fifteen years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and triggered a mass exodus, the Crescent City is bracing for new storms as it faces an entirely different crisis – the beginning of a possible wave of evictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The final eviction protections from the coronavirus relief bill, dubbed the CARES Act, expire nationwide on Aug. 24. Millions of renters around the country are worried, and evictions typically hit Black communities hardest. But those in New Orleans face a particularly toxic combination of steep housing costs, low incomes, weak tenant rights, and housing stock that is crumbling and decrepit.

New Orleans was battered early by the coronavirus, and as tourism shut, nearly one in five residents were put out of work in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As the city slowly tries to reopen, that dropped to 12.9% in June, but many people are still trying to catch up to lost coronavirus income, advocates say. Up to 56% of Louisiana’s renters are now at risk of eviction, the Aspen Institute calculates, the second-highest percentage of at-risk renters in the country after Mississippi.

Potentially making matters worse, Tropical Storm Marco and Tropical Storm Laura are bearing down on the Gulf of Mexico, and threaten to flood the city again.

KATRINA’S LASTING IMPACT

After flooding from Hurricane Katrina damaged 70% of the city’s housing stock in August 15 years ago, tens of thousands of New Orleans buildings stood blighted for years. Large public housing buildings were demolished, over residents’ protests, and replaced with mixed-income housing that pushed many apartment units out of reach for the city’s poor.

According to the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a housing rights organization, New Orleans rents have increased by 50% since 2000, while wages have only risen by 2%.

More than half of the city’s 390,000 residents are renters, and of those 61% are considered cost-burdened, paying more than a third of their income on rent, Jane Place calculates.

“People are paying more rent now than they’ve ever paid in their lives,” said Frank Southall, lead organizer at Jane Place. “It’s not uncommon to never see a one-bedroom apartment that’s in good condition for less than $1,200 in a city where the area median income for a single mother with a child (is) $25,000.”

A CEILING IS NOT UNREASONABLE

Amid the pandemic, housing advocates say some landlords are taking advantage of renters’ vulnerable position.

“We are seeing landlords, that if you owe them money right now, they’re refusing to make necessary repairs that they’re legally required to do,” said Amanda Golob, a housing lawyer for Southeast Louisiana Legal Services.

De Borah Wells, a 49-year-old chef who worked at the landmark Creole restaurant Commander’s Palace before being furloughed in March, said her landlord threatened to evict her after she spoke up about her landlord’s treatment of tenants and complained about the repairs her home needed, including the collapse of her kitchen ceiling in June.

“I just wanted something decent. I don’t feel like a ceiling is that unreasonable!” said Wells, who negotiated with her landlord over the August rent because of the needed repairs but the deal fell through, according to correspondence between her and her lawyer. “I can see outside from my kitchen, inside.”

Wells took her landlord to court. On Friday, the landlord let her out of her lease, she said. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

In Louisiana, landlords only need to give five days’ notice before filing eviction notices, which they can do if payment is even one day late.

And, though landlords are supposed to make repairs to keep homes inhabitable, renters cannot withhold rent until they are made, leaving them with little recourse.

“The hard thing is, especially with low-income folks, it is difficult to move,” Golob said, citing unreturned deposits or first month’s rent and particularly COVID-19’s impact on rental searches. “Some people are staying in pretty terrible conditions because it is better than sleeping in their car.”

Brandie Barrow, a 25-year-old cook and mother of two, said she was able to stay current on her rent despite the restaurant where she works cutting her hours during the pandemic.

Still, after she complained last week of mold, maggots and mildew she found in her daughters’ closet, she said her apartment complex gave her 30 days to move out. Her landlord did not respond to requests for comment left by voicemail.

“How inhumane. Why should I have to pay for somewhere that I’m not happy?” Barrow said.

Tammy Esponge, the executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater New Orleans, an association of rental housing owners, said she thought worries about mass evictions were overblown.

The group had been encouraging landlords to work with residents to develop payment plans. So far, in Louisiana, the eviction rate was 5%, she said, though she acknowledged it was higher for some individual properties.

“Landlords don’t want to evict. They lose money,” said Esponge.

Nonetheless, Wells, who moved into her house last September, said she is thinking about leaving the city altogether. “Worse case I can go back home to Chicago where my parents and boyfriend are,” she said.

(Reporting by Makini Brice in Washington and Kathleen Flynn in New Orleans; Editing by Heather Timmons and Lisa Shumaker)