Around 295,000 without power from Hurricane Sally in Alabama, Florida

(Reuters) – Around 295,000 homes and businesses were still without power on Friday in Florida and Alabama after Hurricane Sally smashed into the Gulf Coast early Wednesday, according to local utilities.

That is down from a total of more than 614,000 customers affected by the storm in Florida, Alabama and Georgia.

NextEra Energy Inc’s Gulf Power utility in Florida said it has already restored service to about 158,000 customers. The utility still has about 126,500 without power.

In Louisiana, which was not hit by Sally, about 40,000 customers were still without power in the southwestern part of the state since Hurricane Laura hit the coast in late August.

Entergy Corp, which still has about 25,600 out in Louisiana, said it expected to restore service to most customers by Sept. 23. In the Hackberry area where the Cameron LNG export plant is located, Entergy has said it expects to restore service by Sept. 20.

(Reporting by Scott DiSavino)

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. disasters cause insurance double whammy for pandemic-hit businesses

By Suzanne Barlyn and Alwyn Scott

(Reuters) – As insurers brace for an expensive natural-disaster season because of storms and wildfires ravaging parts of the United States, the novel coronavirus is giving them an odd financial break.

Many companies that were damaged or evacuated because of natural catastrophes were already generating far less revenue due to the pandemic. That means they will get lower payouts upon filing business-interruption claims, according to analysts, lawyers and industry sources.

It is another hit for small businesses that rebuilt after major disasters in recent years, only to see revenue screech to a halt during the pandemic, and then enter another aggressive disaster season. It could leave some companies unable to survive, said John Ellison, an attorney at Reed Smith LLP who has represented policyholders in cases stemming from hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Sandy.

“There is a reasonable chance that any business in that situation is not going to make it,” he said.

Claims are never simple to file or process, with insurers, lawyers and accountants quibbling over calculations. They rarely cover all losses.

The past several months have been particularly tough for policyholders in states like California, Iowa and Louisiana. They were already battling insurers in court over pandemic claims and then suffered damage from Hurricane Laura, wildfires and a destructive, fast-moving storm that devastated parts of the Midwest.

Most disaster claims are for property damage, but a “significant” amount still comes from business interruption, based on the way insurers have attributed losses after major disasters, said Piper Sandler analyst Paul Newsome.

Insurers do not disclose how much of their total disaster losses are for business interruption.

The amount of payouts for disasters during the pandemic depend on the business, said Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the industry-funded Insurance Information Institute. A liquor store whose business is booming might have higher revenues than six months ago, she said.

Many insurers make a 12-month income projection when calculating the claim, Worters said.

Business-interruption policies cover losses based on recent income trends, so payouts will almost certainly be lower for companies whose operations suffered because of the pandemic, said Credit Suisse analyst Mike Zaremski. Government-imposed lockdowns, supply-chain disruptions and weaker customer demand have hurt many businesses.

That is the situation in Guerneville, California, a wine region where many businesses had to evacuate because of wildfires after already being hurt by the pandemic.

For instance, Big Bottom Market, a gourmet deli there, had to close from March to May. When it re-opened, business was initially off by 40% compared with the prior year, said owner Michael Volpatt. Introducing new services like catering stemmed the tide, but July revenue was still down 9%, Volpatt said.

An Aug. 18 mandatory wildfire evacuation forced Big Bottom Market to close for 12 days. The store escaped property damage but lost over $20,000 in revenue, said Volpatt, who is preparing an insurance claim.

Business interruption was already a sore point between insurers and customers, who are battling in court about whether policies cover pandemics. Only a few of nearly 1,000 lawsuits that are pending have produced rulings, with mixed results.

Hair-salon owner Berlin Fisher is a plaintiff in one such case filed in July. A Hiscox Ltd unit denied business interruption claims for Fisher’s two California salons, whose revenue was wiped out by a measure barring indoor haircuts, he said. Fisher’s San Francisco salon went under as the pandemic dragged on.

A Hiscox spokesman declined comment.

In June, Fisher began cutting hair under a tent in Guerneville to make ends meet. He evacuated four weeks later because of the fires and filed another claim, which is pending.

Fisher pays about $100 monthly for the policy, but said it may not be worth the expense.

“There’s a huge discrepancy between what people who sold the insurance told me then and what actually happens,” he said.

(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn and Alwyn Scott; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra and Dan Grebler)

Trump tours parts of Louisiana, Texas hit by Hurricane Laura

By Nandita Bose

ORANGE, Texas (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Saturday toured areas hit by Hurricane Laura in Louisiana and in Texas receiving briefings on emergency operations and relief efforts.

“One thing I know about this state, it rebuilds fast,” Trump told a gathering that included Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, U.S. lawmakers and federal agency officials. Trump did not meet with residents.

The massive storm hit Louisiana early on Thursday with 150 mile-per-hour (240 kph) winds, damaging buildings, knocking down trees and cutting power to more than 650,000 people in Louisiana and Texas. However, Laura’s storm surge was much less than predicted.

The Category 4 hurricane killed at least 15 people, including some killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from the unsafe operation of generators. Governor Edwards called Laura the most powerful hurricane to strike Louisiana, surpassing even Katrina, which was a Category 3 storm when it hit in 2005.

Trump told officials, referring to those who were lost, “It’s a tremendous number, but you were thinking it could be, could have been, a lot worse.”

Trump signed a disaster declaration for Louisiana on Friday.

He also met with National Guard personnel in Louisiana helping with relief efforts and later flew to Orange, Texas, to meet with officials.

After meeting officials in Lake Charles, Trump said “come here fellas, I want a little power,” and began autographing pieces of paper. He gave a law officer one and said “Here sell this tonight on Ebay, you’ll get $10,000.”

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in St. Charles, La., and Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Daniel Wallis)

Hurricane Laura slams Louisiana, kills six, but less damage than forecast

By Elijah Nouvelage and Ernest Scheyder

LAKE CHARLES, La. (Reuters) – Hurricane Laura tore through Louisiana on Thursday, killing six people and flattening buildings across a wide swatch of the state before moving into Arkansas with heavy rains.

Laura’s powerful gusts uprooted trees – and four people were crushed to death in separate incidents of trees falling on homes. The state’s department of health said late Thursday that there were two more fatalities attributed to the hurricane – a man who drowned while aboard a sinking boat and a man who had carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a generator in his home.

In Westlake, a chemical plant caught fire when hit by Laura, and the flames continued to send a chlorine-infused plume of smoke skyward nearly 24 hours after landfall.

Laura caused less mayhem than forecasts predicted – but officials said it remained a dangerous storm and that it would take days to assess the damage. At least 867,000 homes and businesses in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas remained without power on Thursday afternoon.

“This was the most powerful storm to ever make landfall in Louisiana,” Governor John Bel Edwards told a news conference. “It’s continuing to cause damage and life-threatening conditions.”

Laura’s maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour (241 kph) upon landfall easily bested Hurricane Katrina, which sparked deadly levee breaches in New Orleans in 2005, and arrived with wind speeds of 125 mph.

The NHC said Laura’s eye had crossed into southern Arkansas late Thursday afternoon and was heading to the northeast at 15 mph (24 kph). The storm could dump 7 inches (178 mm) of rain on portions of Arkansas, likely causing flash floods.

Laura was downgraded to a tropical depression by the NHC at 10 p.m., and the forecaster said it will move to the mid-Mississippi Valley later on Friday and then to the mid-Atlantic states on Saturday.

CHEMICAL PLUME

Laura’s howling winds leveled buildings across a wide swath of the state and a wall of water that was 15 feet (4.6 m) high crashed into tiny Cameron, Louisiana, where the hurricane made landfall around 1 a.m.

A calamitous 20-foot storm surge that had been forecast to move 40 miles (64 km) inland was avoided when Laura tacked east just before landfall, Edwards said. That meant a mighty gush of water was not fully pushed up the Calcasieu Ship Channel, which would have given the storm surge an easy path far inland.

Tropical-force winds were felt in nearly every parish across Louisiana – and Edwards warned that the death toll could climb as search and rescue missions increase.

CLEANUP BEGINS

Residents of Lake Charles heard Laura’s winds and the sound of breaking glass as the storm passed through the city of 78,000 with winds of 85 mph and gusts up to 128 mph in the hour after landfall.

National Guard troops cleared debris from roads in Lake Charles on Thursday afternoon. There were downed power lines in streets around the city, and the winds tipped a few semi-trucks onto their sides.

The windows of the city’s 22-story Capital One Tower were blown out, street signs were toppled and pieces of wooden fence and debris from collapsed buildings lay scattered in the flooded streets, video footage on Twitter and Snapchat showed.

Lake Charles resident Borden Wilson, a 33-year-old pediatrician, was anxious about his return home after evacuating to Minden, Louisiana.

“I never even boarded up my windows. I didn’t think to do that. This is the first hurricane I’ve experienced. I just hope my house is fine,” he said in a telephone interview.

(Reporting by Elijah Nouvelage in Lake Charles, La., Ernest Scheyder in Starks, La., Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas, Jennifer Hiller and Gary McWilliams in Houston, Liz Hampton in Denver, Timothy Ahmann, Susan Heavey and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington, Gabriella Borter and Peter Szekely in New York; Writing by Gabriella Borter and Brad Brooks; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Stephen Coates)

Hurricane Laura slams southwestern Louisiana, but less damage than forecast

By Elijah Nouvelage and Ernest Scheyder

LAKE CHARLES, La. (Reuters) – Hurricane Laura ripped through southwestern Louisiana on Thursday, destroying buildings in towns across the southwestern corner of the state and killing a 14-year-old girl after making landfall as one of the most powerful storms to hit the area.

Still, the damage Laura has inflicted so far is far less than what forecasters predicted.

The hurricane’s first reported U.S. fatality was the teenage girl in Leesville, Louisiana, who died when a tree fell on her house, a spokeswoman for Governor John Bel Edwards said.

“We do expect that there could be more fatalities,” the spokeswoman, Christina Stephens, said on Twitter.

A chemical plant caught fire in Laura’s wake on Thursday morning in Westlake, Louisiana, 4 miles (6.4 km) west of Lake Charles, sending thick black smoke billowing into the sky over the wind-torn landscape near Interstate 10.

Edwards warned residents in the area to shelter in place, close doors and windows and turn off air conditioners as authorities investigated. Traffic was blocked on the interstate and Highway 90.

“Stay inside and wait for additional direction from local officials,” Edwards wrote on Twitter.

CLEANUP BEGINS

Residents of Lake Charles heard Laura’s winds howling and the sound of breaking glass as the storm passed through the city of 78,000 with winds of 85 miles per hour (137 km per hour) and gusts up to 128 mph (206 kph) in the hour after landfall.

National Guard troops cleared debris from roads in Lake Charles on Thursday afternoon. There were downed power lines in streets around the city, and the winds tipped a few semi-trucks onto their sides.

The windows of the city’s 22-floor Capital One Tower were blown out, street signs were toppled and pieces of wooden fence and debris from collapsed buildings lay scattered in the flooded streets, video footage on Twitter and Snapchat showed.

Lake Charles resident Borden Wilson, a 33-year-old pediatrician, was anxiously anticipating his return home after evacuating to Minden, Louisiana.

“I never even boarded up my windows. I didn’t think to do that. This is the first hurricane I’ve experienced. I just hope my house is fine,” he said in a telephone interview.

In the small town of Starks, about 25 miles northwest of Lake Charles, pine trees strewn across roads and homes were the biggest challenge in cleaning up.

Rev. Karl Smith carefully inspected the damage done to buildings around his First Pentecostal Church. He rode out the storm in the cellar of his house – and had to cut through trees so that he and his wife could get out.

“We just had trees thrown everywhere,” Smith said. “It’s a big mess.”

HIGH WATERS, TORNADO THREATS

Laura made landfall just before 1 a.m. (0600 GMT) as a Category 4 storm packing winds of 150 mph in the small town of Cameron, Louisiana, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

It rapidly weakened to a Category 1 storm on Thursday morning with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph), and has since become a tropical storm.

The NHC warned that high water levels would persist along the Gulf Coast for several hours as Laura moved north and then northeast.

Besides threatening life, the storm slammed the heart of the U.S. oil industry, forcing oil rigs and refineries to shut down production.

The Port of Lake Charles remained closed as workers were unable to enter or exit the facility due to downed power lines and trees.

The port avoided significant flooding but power was out as of Thursday morning, manager of security and safety Ed Manint said. The harbor police were assessing the damage, he said.

‘LESS SURGE THAN WE THOUGHT’

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Pete Gaynor told Fox News that the agency would make storm damage assessments on Thursday and had the resources to respond to the storm now, adding he expected to see significant damage from wind and building damage.

“I think we’re generally fortunate – less surge than we thought,” Gaynor said.

The NHC on Wednesday predicted storm surge would be “unsurvivable” and could penetrate up to 40 miles inland. While the worst projections had not materialized, damaging winds and flooding rainfall would continue spreading inland later on Thursday, the NHC said.

Laura could spawn tornadoes on Thursday over Louisiana, Arkansas and western Mississippi, and was expected to drop 4 to 8 inches (10-20 cm) of rain across portions of that region, the NHC said.

(Reporting by Elijah Nouvelage in Lake Charles, La., Ernest Scheyder in Starks, La., Jennifer Hiller and Gary McWilliams in Houston, Liz Hampton in Denver, Timothy Ahmann, Susan Heavey and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington; Gabriella Borter and Peter Szekely in New York and Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Tex.; Writing by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Matthew Lewis)

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)

HHS to open ‘surge’ COVID-19 testing in Florida, Texas, Louisiana

(Reuters) – The U.S. government is creating short-term “surge” testing sites for the novel coronavirus in three metropolitan areas in Florida, Louisiana and Texas to meet demand from rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said on Tuesday.

The program adds testing for 5,000 people per day for a five- to 12-day period and will help identify new cases, particularly among asymptomatic people, and potentially limit the spread of the disease, Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Brett Giroir said during a call with reporters.

The sites are opening on Tuesday in several locations in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, area and on Wednesday at multiple sites in the Jacksonville, Florida, area and at one location in Edinburg, Texas.

Florida and Texas are among many U.S. states with high infection rates as a percentage of diagnostic tests conducted over the past week and long testing lines.

After assessing the impact of the testing on the rate of new cases in these areas, the government could deploy such surge testing sites in other locations around the country, Giroir said. He said no decisions have been made yet about other possible sites.

“We need to do this and see what the effect is,” he said.

The U.S. government has largely left testing for COVID-19 to the states after closing down most of the federal testing sites opened in March and April. The surge sites would supplement each state’s own testing plans.

HHS has tapped eTrueNorth, a U.S.-based company that has done community health center testing, for the sites. The tests are free and lab results are available in three to five days.

(Reporting by Caroline Humer in New York and Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta and Jonathan Oatis)

Where COVID-19 is spreading fastest as U.S. cases rise 46% in past week

By Chris Canipe and Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – The United States saw a 46% increase in new cases of COVID-19 in the week ended June 28 compared to the previous seven days, with 21 states reporting positivity test rates above the level that the World Health Organization has flagged as concerning.

Nationally, 7% of diagnostic tests came back positive last week, up from 5% the prior week, according to a Reuters analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

The World Health Organization considers a positivity rate above 5% to be a cause for concern because it suggests there are more cases in the community that have not yet been uncovered.

Arizona’s positivity test rate was 24% last week, Florida’s was 16%, and Nevada, South Carolina and Texas’s were all 15%, according to the analysis.

Thirty-one states, mostly in the U.S. West and South, reported more new cases of COVID-19 last week compared to the previous week, the analysis found. Florida, Louisiana, Idaho and Washington state saw new cases more than double over that period.

In response to the new infections, Louisiana and Washington state have temporarily halted the reopening of their economies. Washington also mandated wearing masks in public.

Florida ordered all bars and some beaches to close. Idaho was not immediately available for comment.

Nationally, new COVID-19 cases have risen every week for four straight weeks. While part of that increase can be attributed to a 9% expansion in testing, health experts have also worried about states relaxing stay-at-home orders that had been credited with curbing the outbreak.

State officials across the country report the same trend in the new cases: People under 35 years old are going to bars, parties and social events without masks, becoming infected, and then spreading the disease to others.

Cases continue to decline in Northeast states, but some Midwest states that had new infections under control are seeing cases once again rise, including Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

 

(Reporting by Chris Canipe in Kansas City, Missouri, and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Louisiana abortion clinic restrictions

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday defended abortion rights by striking down a Louisiana law placing restrictions on doctors who perform the procedure, dealing a blow to anti-abortion advocates.

The 5-4 ruling, with conservative Chief Justice John Roberts joining the four liberals justices in the majority, represented a major victory for Shreveport-based abortion provider Hope Medical Group for Women in its challenge to the 2014 law. The measure had required doctors who perform abortions to have a sometimes difficult-to-obtain formal affiliation called “admitting privileges” at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of the clinic.

Anti-abortion advocates had hoped that the Supreme Court, with its 5-4 conservative majority, would be willing to permit abortion restrictions like those being pursued by Louisiana and other conservative states.

The decision, authored by liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, marked the second time in four years that the court ruled against an “admitting privileges” requirement.

In 2016, the court struck down a Republican-backed Texas law that mandated admitting privileges and required clinics to have costly hospital-grade facilities, finding that the restrictions represented an impermissible “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion.

Several other cases involving legal challenges to abortion restrictions in other states are heading toward the justices that could provide other avenues for its conservative majority to roll back access to the procedure.

Two of Louisiana’s three clinics that perform abortions would have been forced to close if the law went into effect, according to lawyers for Hope Medical Group.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)