Tropical Storm Eta targets Florida west coast as it nears fourth landfall

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – Tropical Storm Eta spun toward Florida’s west coast on Wednesday, nearing its fourth landfall in a matter of days, while threatening squall winds and storm surges, and prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency in 13 counties.

Eta, which had weakened slightly from its hurricane strength earlier on Wednesday to become a tropical storm, is the 28th named storm of the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record, according to the Miami-based National Hurricane Center. It was projected to make its fourth landfall early on Thursday, this time north of Tampa Bay, after it already slammed Central America, Cuba and the upper Florida Keys.

It had dropped nearly 18 inches of rain over parts of South Florida by Monday, moved southwest and then stalled over the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday before making a northward turn. It is was last moving on a north-northeast trajectory at 10 miles per hour (16 kph).

The storm was about 115 miles (180 km) south-southwest of Tampa, with maximum sustained winds of 70 miles per hour (110 kph)on Wednesday, the NHC said.

The west coast of Florida faces “the multiple threats of a landfalling hurricane or tropical storm,” said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, listing the heavy rainfall, storm surge and possible tornadoes in the forecast.

“One is of course the wind, which could be at the very least gusting to hurricane force, and sustained tropical storm force winds. That’s enough to do some damage,” Feltgen said.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in 13 counties in Eta’s path on Wednesday and requested that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declare a pre-landfall state of emergency for those counties as well, to mobilize resources.

The storm surge from Eta was expected to affect southern and western Florida and the Florida Keys on Wednesday and Thursday. The state’s west coast was under a storm surge watch on Wednesday from the Suwanee River to Bonita Beach, including Tampa Bay, where the water could rise up to 5 feet.

“These swells are likely to cause life-threatening surf and rip current conditions,” the NHC said in an advisory.

Tampa International Airport said on Twitter it would suspend operations at 3 p.m. on Wednesday due to the impending storm.

Parts of Broward County, on Florida’s east coast, were still severely flooded on Wednesday, with lakes having overflowed and residential streets submerged. Rainfall totals from Eta could add up to 20 inches in some parts of South Florida, the NHC said.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Steve Orlofsky)

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 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)

Large parts of Bermuda plunged into darkness as Hurricane Humberto whips island

FILE PHOTO: The eye of Hurricane Humberto is seen as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Hurricane Hunter flies across it, September 16, 2019, in this still image from video obtained via social media. NOAA/Lisa Bucci/via REUTERS

By Don Burgess

HAMILTON, Bermuda (Reuters) – Hurricane Humberto knocked out power lines in Bermuda on Wednesday night, plunging nearly the whole Atlantic archipelago into darkness, as the storm whipped the British territory with powerful winds and heavy rain.

Even as Hurricane Humberto was moving away, Miami-based U.S. National Hurricane Center forecast a prolonged period of dangerous winds through Thursday and warned that dangerous breaking waves could lead to coastal flooding overnight.

More than 28,000 homes and businesses had lost electricity by early evening, according to electricity company Belco. Flights were canceled and some residents in the capital, Hamilton, covered windows with wooden planks and metal sheeting.

Belco said it would begin restoring power on Thursday morning.

Bermudan officials warned residents to stay off roads and prepare for possible tornadoes as the hurricane picked up forward speed and weather conditions worsened.

The officials also reported that people who had sought refuge in an emergency housing shelter at a public high school had to be relocated after windows were damaged.

James Dodgson, director of the Bermuda Weather Service, said conditions were already worsening.

“I can’t even rule out some isolated tornadoes. … We have a very serious situation as we have a very big hurricane moving by to our north,” he told a news conference.

On Wednesday, the storm’s eye was located to the west of the archipelago, which lies about 650 miles (1,050 km) east of the United States.

The storm packed 120 mile-per-hour (193 kph) winds and picked up speed during the afternoon, moving at 20 mph (31 kph). Humberto was a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, the NHC said.

Bermuda National Disaster Coordinator Steve Cosham warned that the storm could topple trees and rip down power lines, while tornadoes could damage buildings.

Resident Saivo Goater placed boards across the sliding glass doors of his two-story dwelling, remembering back-to-back hurricanes in 2014 that ripped off parts of his roof.

“I don’t want to go through that again,” Goater said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Officials ended government ferry services and were closing a major road leading to the airport on Wednesday evening. They also opened a shelter at a high school with room for 100 people.

Schools were closed and ambulances on standby, a witness said.

The Atlantic storm season has picked up pace in recent weeks.

The Bahamas is still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Dorian, and the remnants of Tropical Depression Imelda have moved inland across the Gulf coast of Texas and southeastern Louisiana as it weakened, bringing warnings of flash floods and heavy rains.

(Reporting by Don Burgess in Hamilton, Bermuda; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Daina Beth Solomon and Stefanie Eschenbacher in Mexico City; Editing by Dan Grebler, Peter Cooney and Himani Sarkar)

Tropical storm nears northern Bahamas, complicating Dorian relief

By Zach Fagenson

NASSAU (Reuters) – The leading edge of a potential tropical storm brought rain and wind to the Bahamas early Friday, complicating the search for 1,300 people missing in the wake of the worst hurricane to ever hit the island nation and efforts to bring relief to survivors.

A tropical storm warning was in effect for most of the Northwestern Bahamas, including Great Abaco Island and Grand Bahama Island, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) said. Those islands were ravaged when Hurricane Dorian ripped through the archipelago as a Category 5 storm two weeks ago.

Early Friday, the tropical disturbance was 235 miles (375 km) east-southeast of Freeport on Grand Bahama Island as it traveled northwest with winds of 30 mph.

The storm was expected to dump two to four inches of rain on the islands, where the powerful and slow-moving Dorian had ripped roofs off thousands of dwellings and dumped up to two feet of rain. In some areas, the new storm could drop up to 6 inches of rain through Sunday, the NHC said, but no storm surge was expected.

“Tropical storm force winds, heavy rain and high surf are expected” in the Bahamas, said Dennis Feltgen, the center’s spokesman. “Wet and windy, which is going to make the recovery over the northwest Bahamas that much more difficult.”

The storm is expected to pick up speed as it moves northwest on Friday and could hit Florida on Saturday, it said.

In Florida, a tropical storm watch was in effect for portions of the east-central coast early Friday. South Florida could see tropical storm-force winds as early as Friday evening, the NHC said.

The tropical cyclone was not expected to bring anywhere near the devastation of Dorian, which slammed into the Bahamas on Sept. 1 as a Category 5 storm. It was one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record to hit land, packing top sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (298 kph).

With 1,300 people still missing, according to the Bahamian government, relief services are focused on search and rescue as well as providing food, water and shelter.

Aid groups rushed shelter material to residents living in the shells of former homes.

“We’re seeing plastic tarps go out all over the islands, and that’s extremely important because now you’ve got another tropical storm coming,” said Ken Isaacs, vice president of programs for U.S. relief organization Samaritan’s Purse.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will visit the Bahamas on Friday and Saturday to speak with people affected by the hurricane and the humanitarian teams assisting them. He planned to meet with Prime Minister Hubert Minnis in Nassau.

Minnis on Wednesday said the official death toll stood at 50 but was expected to rise. He said he was trying to remove “bureaucratic roadblocks” to bringing aid to areas where the devastation made it hard for relief teams to reach.

Former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said he believed “hundreds” were dead on Abaco “and significant numbers on Grand Bahama,” the Nassau Guardian newspaper reported on Thursday.

Officials have erected large tents in Nassau to house those made homeless by Dorian. They plan to erect tent cities on Abaco to shelter up to 4,000 people.

(Reporting by Zach Fagenson in Nassau; additional reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Brendan O’Brien in Chicago and Rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by Jason Neely and David Gregorio)

Some Florida boat residents to ride out Dorian, hoping for the best

By Gabriella Borter

MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – Ned and Lisa Keahey were well aware that the second-most powerful Atlantic hurricane on record was heading for them, having watched the weather radar on Sunday at a Florida marina from the boat they have called home for the past 20 years.

Even so, the couple had no intention of evacuating their sailboat as the monster Category 5 storm churned westward with maximum sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (295 kph).

“I will not get off this boat during the hurricane for any reason at all, save a human life,” said Ned, 56. “It’s home.”

Dozens of Floridians who live in boats in marinas along the Atlantic Coast in Brevard County were rushing to secure their vessels on Sunday, strapping them to docks and removing canvas coverings from decks as Dorian spun toward the state.

Brevard County emergency officials said mandatory evacuations were issued beginning on Monday at 8 a.m. for residents in low-lying areas, on barrier islands and in mobile homes. Mandatory evacuations in Martin, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties went into effect on Sunday.

Several boat residents said they had decided to leave their vessels and stay with family on shore rather than ride out the storm, even if they knew their entire livelihoods might have been washed away when they returned.

“When you live in a boat and it’s your house, FEMA’s not going to do anything for you,” said Christopher Warren, who has lived on a boat in the Titusville marina for more than two years and planned to stay at his brother’s house 30 miles (48 km) inland during the storm.

The Keaheys, who share their boat with their dog, Princess Leia, and cat, Kitty Bear, said they could not afford to lose their home and felt it had the best chance of weathering the storm if they were present to tend to it.

Millions of people from Florida to North Carolina were bracing for Dorian’s possible landfall or for the storm, which crashed into the Bahamas on Sunday, to veer north into the Atlantic Ocean.

The National Hurricane Center said that even a glancing blow from Dorian could bring torrential rains and damaging winds to Florida.

‘FAITH IT WILL BE OK’

The Keaheys had stocked up on food for themselves and their pets, and had a 60-gallon water tank as well as a generator and solar panel to ensure the power stayed on.

“We made it through Irma, we made it through Matthew, by holding on,” said Ned.

They lost power twice for about three minutes each time during Irma, which hit Florida in 2017 as a powerful Category 4 hurricane, and they stayed up all night then tying the boat down with lines.

“It looked like we had spiderwebs out on the boat because we had so many lines out,” said Lisa, 49.

Marvin and Marilyn Foster also intended to ride out Dorian in their boat home, parked in the Barge Canal on Brevard County’s Merritt Island. The couple moved on Friday from a condo to their small yacht, called “Current Adventure,” to fulfill their lifelong dream of living on a boat.

“We have faith that it will be OK,” said Marilyn, 61, who said it would be her first hurricane aboard a boat.

Her husband, Marvin, 52, said he had spent a hurricane on a boat before and knew his plan for surviving Dorian would be the same this time: “Pay attention, have provisions, get rest, stay sober, help out your neighbor.”

 

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Frank McGurty and Peter Cooney)

Dorian to hit Bahamas as ‘devastating’ hurricane, then menace Georgia and Carolinas

Hurricane Dorian is seen from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA's GOES-East Satellite, over the Atlantic Ocean, August 31, 2019 in this handout image obtained from social media. NOAA/Handout via REUTERS

By Zachary Fagenson

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Reuters) – Hurricane Dorian punched northwest on Saturday to threaten Georgia and the Carolinas, possibly sparing Florida a direct hit, as the Bahamas braced for catastrophic waves and wind from the muscular category 4 storm.

Florida towns told residents to remain vigilant despite forecasts they might dodge a Dorian landfall, as a tropical storm watch was issued for the state’s south Atlantic coast.

Communities in northeast Florida, Georgia and South Carolina raised alert levels, with residents filling sandbags as authorities tested infrastructure and hurricane drills. South Carolina on Saturday joined Georgia, North Carolina and Florida in declaring a state of emergency.

Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis begged residents of Abaco and Grand Bahamas to head for the main island to escape the “devastating, dangerous” storm.

Hurricane Dorian is seen from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA-42 WP-3D Orion aircraft during a reconnaissance mission over the Atlantic Ocean, August 30, 2019 in this handout image obtained from social media. Picture taken August 30, 2019. LCDR Robert Mitchell/NOAA/Handout via REUTERS

“I want you to remember: homes, houses, structures can be replaced. Lives cannot be replaced,” Minnis told a news conference, adding that 73,000 people and 21,000 homes were at risk to storm surges of up to 15 feet (4.6 meters).

At 5 p.m. ET (2100 GMT)The National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Dorian was packing maximum sustained winds of 150 mph (240 kph) and would hit the Bahamas on Sunday with more than two feet of rainfall in places, threatening deadly flash floods.

Dorian could then veer northwest and possibly remain at sea as it moved up the U.S. eastern seaboard late on Monday through Tuesday, the NHC said.

A tropical storm watch was issued for a more than 120-mile stretch (193 km) of Florida coast from Deerfield Beach to around Palm Bay, meaning sustained winds of up to 73 mph (117 kmh)were possible within 48 hours.

North Carolina authorities warned residents Dorian was heading their way, while counterparts in Florida told towns to remain alert.

“While obviously for us it’s a better forecast, we can’t assume that there’s not going to be hazardous weather,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber.

BAHAMAS ON SUNDAY

Central Florida towns urged residents to remain alert after past hurricanes like 1992’s Andrew slammed the Bahamas and then barreled straight into the peninsula’s southeast coast.

“Don’t start taking down your shutters, don’t start disassembling your emergency plan,” said Eric Flowers, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office in Indian River County.

On Tybee Island, a Georgia coastal barrier island, authorities put out sand for sandbags to protect against possible flooding in the marshy area.

“Our biggest concern is storm surge because the tides are really high right now,” said the manager of a local restaurant, who asked not be named as he was not authorized to speak to media.

Further north, Dorchester County in South Carolina raised its alert level to make sure infrastructure and public safety crews were ready for the hurricane in the area near the historic city of Charleston.

North Carolina Emergency Management (NCEMA) said the storm was forecast to keep moving in the state’s direction for the next 48 hours.

“Now is the time to prepare and assemble disaster supplies,” said Katie Webster, an NCEMA meteorologist, urging people to prepare a week’s supply of food and water.

(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Jacksonville, Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis in New York; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Franklin Paul)

As Hurricane Erick heads toward Hawaii, another Pacific hurricane expected to form

Hurricane Erick - NOAA track photograph

(Reuters) – As Hurricane Erick gained strength in the eastern Pacific as it churned toward Hawaii, another weather system, tropical storm Flossie brewing farther east is likely to become a hurricane later on Tuesday, forecasters said.

Tropical Storm Erick grew into a hurricane late on Monday in the eastern Pacific, packing maximum sustained winds of 1115 mph as it churned more than 1,000 miles (1,610 km) from Hawaii’s Big Island.

Erick, the Pacific season’s third hurricane, is rated a Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale and could gain strength in the next two days, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

“A weakening trend is expected to begin later in the week,” it said in an advisory.

The weather system is expected to weaken back into a tropical storm by the time it makes its closest approach to Hawaii and is forecast to skirt south of the Big Island on Friday morning. Forecasts call for a higher chance of gale-force winds from the storm on the Big Island later this week.

Another tropical storm, Flossie, was trailing Erick farther out in the eastern Pacific, packing winds of 65 mph (100 kph) early on Tuesday.

Flossie is expected to become the fourth hurricane of the Pacific this season later in the day, forecasters said. It was about 965 miles (1550 km) southwest of Baja, California, an advisory said, and was slowly headed west.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

U.S. oil firms cut nearly a third of Gulf of Mexico output ahead of storm

FILE PHOTO: A massive drilling derrick is pictured on BP's Thunder Horse Oil Platform in the Gulf of Mexico, 150 miles from the Louisiana coast, May 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jessica Resnick-Ault/File Photo

By Collin Eaton and Erwin Seba

HOUSTON (Reuters) – U.S. oil producers on Wednesday cut nearly a third of offshore Gulf of Mexico crude output as what could be one of the first major storms of the Atlantic hurricane season threatened production.

Fifteen oil production platforms and four rigs were evacuated in the north central area of the Gulf of Mexico, according to the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), ahead of a storm expected to become a hurricane by Friday.

Exxon Mobil Corp, Chevron Corp, Anadarko Petroleum Corp and others withdrew staff, and some cut production from deepwater platforms as a safety precaution.

The withdrawals helped push U.S. oil futures up 4% to more than $60 a barrel, and lifted gasoline prices. The U.S. Gulf of Mexico produces 17% of U.S. crude oil and 5% of natural gas. Gasoline futures climbed more than 3.5% in New York trading.

A tropical depression is expected to form in the Gulf by Thursday, with the potential to strengthen to a hurricane by the weekend, according to the National Hurricane Center. The system could produce a storm surge and heavy rainfall from Louisiana to the upper Texas coast.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards on Wednesday declared a state of emergency, warning that the storm system could bring up to 15 inches of rain and hurricane-force winds to parts of Louisiana. A state of emergency allows for the activation of the state’s National Guard and the setting of curfews.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June through November.

BSEE said more than 600,000 barrels per day of Gulf oil production and 17% of the region’s natural gas production were shut by producers.

Exxon has evacuated nonessential staff from three platforms in the Gulf, but anticipates little effect on its production, spokeswoman Julie King said.

Anadarko, the third largest U.S. Gulf producer by volume, said it is stopping oil and gas production and removing workers from its four central Gulf facilities: the Constitution, Heidelberg, Holstein and Marco Polo platforms. It said it is also evacuating nonessential staff from eastern Gulf platforms.

Royal Dutch Shell Plc expanded an earlier offshore evacuation to seven platforms and shut more production, the company said on Wednesday.

Operations at the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, the only U.S. port where the largest crude tankers can load and unload, were normal on Wednesday morning, a spokeswoman said.

Oil refiners Motiva Enterprises and Marathon Petroleum Corp said they were monitoring the developing storm and prepared to implement hurricane plans.

Motiva’s Port Arthur, Texas, refinery was one of four refineries in east Texas inundated by more than 5 feet (1.52 m) of rain in a single day during 2017’s Hurricane Harvey.

Chevron, Phillips 66, Exxon and Royal Dutch Shell were preparing for heavy rain and wind at refineries along the Gulf Coast, company representatives said. Exxon reported operations at its Gulf Coast refineries were normal on Wednesday morning.

Chevron has shut production at five Gulf platforms – Big Foot, Blind Faith, Genesis, Petronius and Tahiti – and has begun to evacuate all workers at those offshore facilities, spokeswoman Veronica Flores-Paniagua said.

BP Plc, the second-largest oil producer in the Gulf by volume, is shutting all production at its four Gulf platforms – Thunder Horse, Atlantis, Mad Dog and Na Kika – which produce more than 300,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day.

BHP Group Ltd was also removing staff from its two offshore energy platforms, according to a company statement.

Two independent offshore producers, Fieldwood Energy LLC and LLOG Exploration Company LLC, declined to comment.

(Reporting by Collin Eaton and Erwin Seba in Houston; Editing by Gary McWilliams, Matthew Lewis and Leslie Adler)

Hurricane Michael, among strongest in U.S. history, slams Florida Panhandle

Waves crash on stilt houses along the shore due to Hurricane Michael at Alligator Point in Franklin County, Florida, U.S., October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Steve Nesius

By Rod Nickel

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (Reuters) – Hurricane Michael, the fiercest storm to hit Florida in a quarter century and the third-most powerful ever to strike the U.S. mainland, roared into the state’s Gulf coast on Wednesday with tree-snapping winds and towering waves.

Michael, whose rapid intensification as it churned north over the Gulf of Mexico caught many by surprise, made landfall early in the afternoon near Mexico Beach, about 20 miles (32 km) southeast of Panama City in Florida’s Panhandle region, with top sustained winds reaching 155 miles per hour (249 kph).

The storm came ashore as a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson wind scale. Its sustained winds were just 2 mph (3.2 kph) shy of an extremely rare Category 5.

As predicted, the storm was downgraded hours later to a still-formidable Category 3 with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph (205 kph) and higher gusts as it pushed inland to the Alabama-Georgia border.

Causing major disruptions to oil and gas production in the Gulf even before its arrival, the storm was forecast to unleash waves as high as 14 feet (4.3 meters) above normal sea levels in some areas, the National Hurricane Center said.

“My God, it’s scary. I didn’t expect all this,” said Bill Manning, 63, a grocery clerk who fled his camper van in Panama City for safer quarters in a hotel, only to see the electricity there go out. “Panama City, I don’t know if there will be much left.”

Only a couple of hours after Michael came ashore, floodwaters were more than 7-1/2 feet (2.3 meters) deep near Apalachicola on Florida’s Panhandle, National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said.

Authorities had urged coastal residents in 20 Florida counties along a 200-mile (320-km) stretch of shoreline to head to higher ground before the storm, but anyone who had not fled by Wednesday morning was told it was too late to evacuate.

An estimated 6,000 evacuees took cover in emergency shelters, most of them in Florida, and that number was expected to swell to 20,000 across five states by week’s end, said Brad Kieserman of the American Red Cross.

Even before Michael made full landfall, it was whipping trees with its winds and flooding the town of Port St. Joe.

“It feels like you don’t know when the next tree is going to fall on top of you because its blowing so ferociously,” said Port St. Joe Mayor Bo Patterson. “It’s very, very scary. We have trees being uprooted, heavy, heavy rain.”

Palm trees are seen during a Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Florida, U.S., October 10, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. WeatherNation/via REUTERS

Palm trees are seen during a Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Florida, U.S., October 10, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. WeatherNation/via REUTERS

‘JAW-DROPPING’ STRENGTH

Patterson said about 2,500 of the town’s 3,500 people had stayed put, including about 100 in a beachside area who ignored a mandatory evacuation order. “This happened so quickly, we weren’t exactly prepared,” he said.

Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said early evacuation efforts in the area were slow.

Michael grew from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane over the course of about 40 hours.

“Satellite images of Michael’s evolution on Tuesday night were, in a word, jaw-dropping,” wrote Bob Henson, a meteorologist with weather site Weather Underground.

With minimum barometric pressure recorded at 919 millibars, a measure of hurricane strength, Michael stood as the strongest storm ever to hit Florida’s Panhandle and the most intense anywhere in the state since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Michael also ranked as the third-most powerful storm on record to make landfall in the continental United States, after Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969 and the so-called Labor Day hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys.

President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for the entire state of Florida, freeing up federal assistance to supplement state and local disaster responses. He was briefed by FEMA’s Long in the Oval Office on preparations.

At mid-afternoon, about 192,000 homes and business customers were already without power in Florida alone, with more outages reported in Georgia and Alabama, utility companies said.

Michael was forecast to move across southeastern Alabama and southwestern Georgia on Wednesday night.

Helen Neal, 88, and her husband, J.W. Neal, 87, preferred to take their chances in a hotel rather than stay in their two-story Panama City Beach beachfront house about a mile away.

“We just finished renovating and updating,” she said. “We’re kind of nervous. God willing, we’ll still have some place.”

About 3,500 Florida National Guard troops were deployed to assist with evacuations and storm recovery, along with more than 1,000 search-and-rescue personnel, Governor Rick Scott said.

NHC’s Graham warned that the storm would continue to pack tropical storm-force winds when it reached the Carolinas, still reeling from severe flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence last month. Up to a foot (30 cm) of rainfall was forecast for some areas from Michael.

Scott declared a state of emergency in 35 Florida counties. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared an emergency for 92 counties in his state, and a state of emergency also was announced in North Carolina.

(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Tallahassee, Florida; Additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Panama City, Florida, Susan Heavey, Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Gina Cherelus and Barbara Goldberg in New York, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Liz Hampton in Houston, Andrew Hay in New MexicoWriting by Lisa Shumaker and Bill Trott; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Cynthia Osterman)