Hurricane Laura strengthening rapidly to category 4 storm in Gulf of Mexico

MIAMI (BLOOMBERG) – Hurricane Laura is poised to become a life-threatening Category 4 storm before coming ashore along the Texas-Louisiana coast this week, potentially inflicting as much as US$18 billion (S$24.6 billion) in damage on the region and keeping some of America’s largest oil refineries shut for months.

Laura’s winds were forecast to peak at 209kmh over the Gulf of Mexico, but could weaken slightly before hitting the coast on Thursday (Aug 27), according to the National Hurricane Centre.

The storm has already disrupted offshore oil and natural gas production, shut a third of the Gulf Coast’s refining capacity, halted exports and prompted mandatory evacuations. It’s set to be the first major system to hit the Gulf Coast since Michael in 2018.

“Laura has become a formidable hurricane,” the NHC said on its website. A “life-threatening storm surge with large and dangerous waves is expected to produce potentially catastrophic damage from San Luis Pass, Texas, to the mouth of the Mississippi River.”

Even when it was forecast to become no more powerful than Category 3, Laura was predicted to cause anywhere between US$6 billion and US$18 billion in losses, according to Mr Chuck Watson, a disaster modeller with Enki Research. About 10 per cent to 12 per cent of US refining capacity could be shut for more than six months, he said.

“It is going to be a hard hitter, and it is going to cause some devastating impacts,” said Mr Jim Rouiller, lead meteorologist with the Energy Weather Group. “Louisiana is going to have a lot of damage with this storm.”

After Laura rips across the Gulf Coast, it will leave a path of destruction through the Mississippi Valley before turning on the Mid-Atlantic region that just recovered from Hurricane Isaias, he said.

There is a possibility Laura will re-intensify once it makes it to Maryland, New Jersey and possibly New York, he said.

The tropical threat has prompted more than 84 per cent of oil output and nearly 61 per cent of natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico to be shut, according to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

Gulf Coast refineries and petrochemical plants are often located in low-lying areas vulnerable to flooding. In 2017, an Arkema SA chemical plant about 40km east of Houston had a fire and explosion after it was flooded by Hurricane Harvey. Last September, Exxon shut its Beaumont refinery in Texas because of flooding from Tropical Storm Imelda.

Laura could push sea levels as high as 4.6m in the Sabine Pass area and along parts of the Texas coast where the Henry Hub is located, the hurricane centre said at 5am New York time. Storm surges kill nearly half of all people who die in hurricanes.

This surge could penetrate as much as 50km inland from the immediate coastline in south-western Louisiana and far south-eastern Texas, Mr Jack Beven, a senior hurricane specialist at the centre, wrote in his forecast. “Actions to protect life and property should be rushed to completion this evening, as water levels will begin to rise on Wednesday,” he wrote.

The last hurricane to hit Texas as a Category 4 storm was Harvey in 2017, which came ashore and then got pinned in place by larger weather patterns, causing it to send record rains across the eastern half of the state for days. The last hurricane to hit Texas was Hanna in July.

Some of the largest US refineries are winding down in advance of Laura, shutting in nearly 2.9 million barrels a day of capacity. That’s about 30 per cent of US Gulf Coast refining capacity, according to Lipow Oil Associates.

Energy platforms in the Gulf of Mexico that account for as much as 17 per cent of America’s oil production and about 3 per cent of gas output are designed to withstand storms of this magnitude.

The energy industry is “very well prepared for this type of storm”, US Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said in an interview with Bloomberg TV. President Donald Trump has ordered him to make the Strategic Petroleum Reserve available for such situations, he said.

The city of Port Arthur, Texas, will order some residents to flee the storm starting on Tuesday, according to the city’s website. Jefferson County in Texas put in place a mandatory evacuation order for all except essential personnel, it said in a statement. Houston-area government officials urged resident of the city’s eastern suburbs to evacuate.

Laura will be a record seventh system to hit the US by August, and more are coming, Mr Rouiller said.

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