U.S. Gulf Coast tourism, already stung by pandemic, slammed by Hurricane Sally

By Devika Krishna Kumar

PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – Hurricane Sally made a direct hit on the U.S. Gulf Coast this week, dealing a blow to a popular tourist destination already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic. In the storm’s aftermath, many bar and restaurant owners were breathing a sigh of relief the damage was not worse.

Sally bulled its way through this stretch of beach towns and condos in Alabama and Florida, making landfall on Wednesday as a powerful Category 2 hurricane and bringing extensive floods that destroyed numerous piers and caused two riverboat casinos under construction to break free of their moorings.

Max Murphy, general manager of Crabs, a seafood and steak restaurant in Pensacola Beach, Florida, said the hurricane’s late eastward turn left residents unprepared.

“Everyone in the community expected it to keep going straight west to New Orleans or Gulfport (Miss.), but it took that turn so we weren’t really prepared,” Murphy said. “I didn’t even get the plywood up on my windows, because I wasn’t expecting it to come here.”

The damage from Hurricane Sally could range from $8 billion to $10 billion, well above earlier estimates of $2 billion to $3 billion, said Chuck Watson of Enki Research, which tracks tropical storms and models the costs of their damage. The hit to tourism revenues may not be fully known for months.

The U.S. leisure and hospitality industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 200,000 Americans. The Gulf region is a popular driving destination for the entire Southeast and Texas, peppered with restaurants, casinos and amusement parks.

Baldwin County, Alabama, where the hurricane made landfall, was the state’s most-visited county in 2019, according to the state tourism bureau, bringing in $1.7 billion in travel-related revenue.

In the Pensacola region, approximately 22,900 people were employed in that industry in August, a 13% drop from March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Mike Bose, a manager at the Flora-Bama beach bar in Perdido Key, Florida, which hugs the Alabama state line, said the damage was still being assessed. More than 24 hours after the storm made landfall, parts of the restaurant were still flooded.

“We got quite a bit of water damage throughout, which we’re working on today,” Bose said. “There’s no telling at this point what the cost is to get back on track.”

Some tourists and visitors say the hurricane has scared them away from a return visit. Toni Galloway from Kansas City, Missouri, was visiting the Gulf area when Sally struck.

“This was my first hurricane. I wouldn’t want to weather another one. It’s frightening. I will have to think long and hard about returning to the Gulf Coast,” she said.

Murphy, the Crabs general manager, said the damage from this hurricane was less extensive than others like Hurricane Ivan, which hit 16 years ago at Category 5 strength. “That’s enough damage for the season. We don’t want anymore. We got lucky, we really did.”

John Perkins, 71, got to Gulf Shores, Alabama, on Sunday night from Tennessee to attend a wedding. Instead, he found himself hunkering down with his wife as the winds blew for hours.

“I told my wife – we can mark this off our bucket list. We rode out a hurricane,” he said.

(Reporting By Devika Krishna Kumar in Pensacola, Florida; additional reporting by Jennifer Hiller in Houston; Writing by David Gaffen; Editing by Timothy Gardner)

After the floods, assessing Hurricane Sally’s damage

By Devika Krishna Kumar and Jennifer Hiller

GULF SHORES, Ala./HOUSTON (Reuters) – As an Alabama resident, Toby Wallace has seen his fair share of hurricane damage working for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), where he handles flood insurance claims.

But that did not prepare him for Hurricane Sally, which flipped his camper and pushed it into his home, breaking off the front steps. High winds drove water through vents and roof, flooding a room.

“It’s gonna be a lot of cleaning,” said Wallace, 49.

Wallace and thousands of other residents along the U.S. Gulf Coast are just starting to tally the damage from Hurricane Sally, which could come in anywhere from $8 billion to $10 billion, well above earlier estimates of $2 billion to $3 billion, said Chuck Watson of Enki Research, which tracks tropical storms and models the cost of their damage.

Hurricanes are normally associated with massive wind gusts and rains on the coast, but inland rains causing floods over a vast region can make a storm even worse, as rivers and streams over spill, flooding communities along the way and causing the damage to as much as double.

The storm made landfall at Gulf Shores, Alabama on Wednesday morning as a Category 2 hurricane but continued carrying heavy rain inland as far north as Virginia on Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.

Sally’s immediate impact likely caused around $5 billion in damage and cleanup costs, Watson said. The storm has moved away from the coast but will bring several more inches of rain to the U.S. Southeast before dissipating.

“If you’re sitting on a river five miles inland, you’ve got the wind and two feet of rain dumped on you, then four to six days later a few feet of water comes down the river,” Watson said. Inland rains also could affect cotton and peanut harvesting, as five counties in central Georgia had radar totals over 10 inches in 12 hours, Watson said.

Several rivers in Alabama and Florida have not yet crested and are not expected to reach “major flood” stages until Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

Evidence of water damage was rampant as the floods receded along the coast. The facade of an eight-floor apartment building in Gulf Shores was completely blown off, and damaged kitchens and bedrooms were visible, with furniture soaked from the torrential rains that pelted the area on Wednesday.

Wallace of FEMA said that more recently built homes were constructed with some elevation from the ground, so their damage is wind-related.

Numerous buildings had their roofs torn off, and rebuilding electrical, sewage and water systems will cost money.

In Gulf Shores, Paula Hendrickson, 70, evacuated her home near the water and came slightly more inland to her sister’s, thinking it would be safer.

But the wind ripped a fan off the front balcony of her sister’s home and damaged the roof, and Hendrickson’s car ended up flooded by saltwater and is likely a total loss.

“If you’ve been in an airplane that hits turbulence, that’s exactly how it felt. On and off, on and off. All night long,” Hendrickson said, adding, “I’ll never go through it again.”

(Reporting by Jennifer Hiller and Devika Krishna Kumar; editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Sally weakens to tropical depression, leaves massive floods on U.S. Gulf Coast

By Devika Krishna Kumar and Catherine Koppel

PENSACOLA, Fla. (Reuters) – Hurricane Sally moved northeast on Thursday, where it was expected to bring more than a foot of rain to some areas, one day after it flooded streets and knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Sally made landfall early on Wednesday near Gulf Shores, Alabama, with winds clocked at 105 mph (169 kph), making it a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity.

As of late Wednesday, it was moving north at 12 mph (19 km per hour) after being downgraded to a tropical depression, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said, with maximum winds of 30 mph (50 kmh).

The storm is believed to have killed one person in Alabama.

“We had a body wash up. We believe it was hurricane-related, but we have no definitive proof of that right now,” said Trent Johnson, a police lieutenant in Orange Beach, Alabama.

Some parts of the coast were inundated with more than two feet (60 cm) of rain, as the slow-moving storm flooded communities. The coastal city of Pensacola, Florida, experienced up to 5 feet (1.5 m) of flooding, and travel was cut by damaged roads and bridges. More than 570,000 homes and businesses across the area were without power.

Several residents along the Alabama and Florida coasts said damage from the storm caught them off guard. By late Wednesday, the floodwaters had started to recede in some areas, though the National Weather Service warned that extensive river flooding would be a concern through the weekend.

“It was just constant rain and wind,” said Preity Patel, 41, a resident of Pensacola for two years. “The water drained pretty quickly, thankfully. It’s just cleanup now.”

The Pensacola Bay Bridge, known also as the “Three Mile Bridge,” was missing a “significant section,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said at a news conference.

Electrical crews from other states arrived in Pensacola as utilities began restoring power to Alabama and Florida, according to local utilities.

“This year we’ve just got hurricane after hurricane,” said Matt Lane, 23, a member of a crew from New Hampshire Electric Coop, who arrived late on Tuesday directly from Hurricane Laura recovery efforts in Texas.

Sally was the 18th named storm in the Atlantic this year and the eighth of tropical storm or hurricane strength to hit the United States. There are currently three other named storms in the Atlantic, making it one of the most active Atlantic hurricane seasons on record.

Hurricanes have increased in intensity and destructiveness since the 1980’s as the climate has warmed, according to researchers at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Sally shut more than a quarter of U.S. Gulf of Mexico offshore oil and gas production.

(Reporting by Devika Krishna-Kumar and Catherine Koppel in Mobile, Alabama; Additional reporting by Jennifer Hiller in Houston and Stephanie Kelly and Scott DiSavino in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Sally lumbers toward U.S. Gulf Coast, threatens ‘catastrophic rain’

By Jonathan Bachman and Jennifer Hiller

GULF SHORES, ALABAMA (Reuters) – Hurricane Sally made a slow-motion crawl towards the U.S. Gulf Coast on Tuesday, threatening historic floods and prolonged rainfall as officials in three states urged people to flee the coast.

Sally could wallop the Alabama, Florida and Mississippi coasts on Tuesday night or early Wednesday with massive flash flooding and storm surges of up to 7 feet (2 meters) in some spots, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said. Its languid pace recalls 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, which dumped several feet of rain over a period of days on the Houston area.

More than 2 feet of rain expected in some areas, creating “extreme life-threatening flash flooding likely through Wednesday,” an NHC forecaster said. While Sally’s winds decreased to 80 miles (140 km) per hour at 1 p.m.(1800 GMT), it was moving at a glacial pace of two miles per hour.

Sally will slow even more after landfall, causing Atlanta, Georgia to see as much as six inches (15 cm) of rain through Friday, said Jim Foerster, chief meteorologist at DTN, an energy, agriculture and weather data provider. “It’s going to be a catastrophic flooding event” for much of the southeastern U.S., Forester said, with Mobile, Alabama to the western part of the Florida panhandle taking the brunt of the storm.

Governors from Louisiana to Florida warned people to leave low-lying communities and Mobile County, Alabama Sheriff Sam Cochran warned residents of flood-prone areas that if they choose to ride out the storm, it will be “a couple of days or longer before you can get out.”

The causeway to Dauphin Island, Alabama, at the entrance to Mobile Bay was already flooded and impassable on Tuesday morning, the mayor said.

Coastal roads in Pascagoula, Mississippi, were flooding on Tuesday and some electrical wires were down, according to photos and social media posts from the police department, which asked people to respect road barricades and “refrain from joy riding.”

Nearly 11,000 homes are at risk of storm surge in the larger coastal cities in Alabama and Mississippi, according to estimates from property data and analytics firm CoreLogic.

Steady winds and bands of rain had started to arrive in Gulf Shores by Tuesday morning. Samantha Frederickson, who recently moved to Gulf Shores, Alabama, hit the beach early Tuesday to catch a view of the storm surf. “At the moment, we’re riding it out,” she said amid light rains and winds. “When it gets to the point we don’t feel comfortable, we’ll take off.”

President Donald Trump made emergency declarations for Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, which helps coordinate disaster relief.

At 1 p.m., storm was 60 miles (95 km) east of the mouth of the Mississippi River, the NHC said.

Ports, schools and businesses closed along the coast. The U.S. Coast Guard restricted travel on the lower Mississippi River from New Orleans to the Gulf, and closed the ports of Pascagoula and Gulfport, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama.

Energy companies buttoned up or halted oil refineries and pulled workers from offshore oil and gas production platforms. More than a quarter of U.S. offshore oil production was shut.

Sally is the 18th named storm in the Atlantic this year and will be the eighth tropical storm or hurricane to hit the United States – something “very rare if not a record” said Dan Kottlowski, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, noting that accurate data on historic tropical storms can be elusive.

(Reporting by Jennifer Hiller in Houston and Jonathan Bachman in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Editing by Marguerita Choy, Jonathan Oatis and Timothy Gardner)

U.S. gasoline prices tumble as Harvey subsides

A pump jack is seen at sunrise near Bakersfield, California October 14, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Ron Bousso

LONDON (Reuters) – Benchmark U.S. gasoline prices slumped on Monday to pre-Hurricane Harvey levels as oil refineries and pipelines in the U.S. Gulf Coast slowly resumed activity, easing supply concerns.

Brent crude oil futures were flat at $52.75 by 1340 GMT, paring earlier losses after a powerful North Korean nuclear test triggered a shift away from crude markets to assets perceived to be safer, such as gold.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures, however, were up 34 cents at $47.63 barrel as U.S. demand, hit by reduced refinery activity since Harvey made landfall on Aug. 25, recovered.

NYMEX gasoline futures were down 3.2 percent at $1.6916 a gallon, levels last seen on Aug. 25, the day Harvey struck, crippling production and causing widespread flooding.

Still, damage to the oil infrastructure in the Gulf Coast hub by Harvey appeared less extensive than some had feared.

Harvey has now been downgraded to a tropical storm.

A number of major refineries, which convert crude oil into refined products such as gasoline and jet fuel, as well as distribution pipelines, were gradually resuming operations on Monday.

Valero Energy’s 225,000 barrels per day (bpd) Texas City refinery was the only plant reported to be running at normal rates so far.

At the same time, about 5.5 percent of the U.S. Gulf of Mexico’s oil production, or 96,000 barrels of daily output, remained shut on Sunday, down from a peak of more than 400,000 bpd last week.

“The disruptions from Hurricane Harvey in the U.S. Gulf Coast are gradually clearing. In the broader scheme of things, it appears that so far the energy industry was spared major damages to assets and infrastructure,” analysts at Vienna-based JBC Energy said in a note.

“However, some Houston area refineries will likely remain offline for some time longer.”

Traders booked dozens of gasoline tankers over the past week from Asia and Europe to the United States and Latin America in order to plug supply shortages in the wake of the shutdowns.

European gasoline refining margins dropped by nearly a fifth on Monday.

And while the U.S. government tapped its strategic oil reserves for the first time in five years last week, the head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) said the global energy watchdog still sees no need for a coordinated international release of oil stocks after Harvey.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott estimated damage at $150 billion to $180 billion, calling it more costly than Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy, which hit New Orleans in 2005 and New York in 2012 respectively.

Traders were nervously watching developments in North Korea, where the military conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test over the weekend. Pyongyang said it had tested an advanced hydrogen bomb for a long-range missile, prompting the threat of a “massive” military response from the United States if it or its allies were threatened.

That put downward pressure on crude as traders moved money out of oil – seen as high-risk markets – into gold futures traditionally viewed as a safe haven for investors. Spot gold prices rose for a third day, gaining 0.9 percent on Monday.

Overall trading activity in the oil futures market was expected to be low on Monday due to the U.S. Labor Day public holiday.

 

(Additional reporting by Henning Gloystein in Singapore; Editing by Louise Heavens)

 

Texas edges closer to recovery after Harvey as key pipeline restarts

Samaritans help clear debris from the house of a neighbor which was left flooded from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, U.S. September 3, 2017.

By Catherine Ngai

HOUSTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Gulf Coast moves closer to recovery from Hurricane Harvey on Monday when the biggest American fuel system restarts a key segment shut down by devastating rains and officials weigh how to pay for billions of dollars in damage.

The move by Colonial Pipeline to resume transporting distillates such as diesel fuel comes as the Gulf region’s energy industry starts to come back online.

Flooding from Harvey drove up fuel prices by shutting down almost a quarter of U.S. refining capacity.

The storm came ashore on Aug. 25 as the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years. It killed an estimated 50 people, displaced more than 1 million and damaged some 200,000 homes in a path of destruction stretching for more than 300 miles (480 km).

Colonial said it expected to reopen a Texas section of its network from Houston to Hebert, Texas, on Monday, which is the Labor Day holiday. The line would be ready to start moving gasoline on Tuesday, it said.

The pipelines’ reopening will restore links between refineries along the Gulf Coast, the U.S. petrochemical hub, to markets in the Northeast.

Another fuel system, Explorer Pipeline, said a link running from Texas to Oklahoma restarted on Sunday, with a second pipeline from Oklahoma into the Midwest expected to resume on Monday.

Retail fuel costs surged through the weekend amid fears of shortages, despite the restart of several key Gulf refineries that had been crippled by Harvey.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin challenged Congress on Sunday to raise the government’s debt limit in order to free up relief spending. Texas Governor Greg Abbott said the storm had caused up to $180 billion in damage.

President Donald Trump’s administration has asked Congress for an initial $7.85 billion for recovery efforts, a small fraction of what will eventually be needed.

Even that amount could be delayed unless Congress quickly increases the government’s debt ceiling, Mnuchin said. The United States is on track to hit its mandated borrowing limit by the end of the month unless Congress increases it.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city expected most public services and businesses to be restored by Tuesday, the first day after the Labor Day holiday.

About 37,000 families were staying in 270 shelters in Texas, the highest number reported by the American Red Cross.

The city mandated the evacuation of thousands of people on the western side of Houston on Sunday to accommodate the release of water from reservoirs that otherwise might sustain damage. The storm stalled over Houston, the fourth-largest U.S. city, dumping more than 50 inches (1.3 m) on the region.

 

(Reporting by Catherine Ngai in HOUSTON and Ian Simpson in WASHINGTON; Editing by Paul Tait)