HOUSTON (CN) — Counties on the southeast Texas coast are ordering their residents to evacuate Tuesday as forecasters say Tropical Storm Laura is now a hurricane that will lash the area with driving winds and rain when it makes landfall Wednesday.
Around 7 a.m. Tuesday, Hurricane Laura was in the Gulf of Mexico moving west-northwest at 17 mph with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph within its eye, according to the National Hurricane Center.
More than 300,000 Southeast Texas residents have been ordered to evacuate, as the National Weather Service predicts areas around the Texas-Louisiana border could be inundated with 7-to-11-foot storm surges, especially if Laura comes ashore during a high tide.
Laura is moving to the Gulf Coast after causing landslides, pushing trees over onto homes and knocking out the power of millions of people in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico, and leaving at least 11 people dead.
Louisiana residents breathed a sigh of relief when Hurricane Marco weakened into a tropical storm before making landfall near the mouth of the Mississippi River early Monday evening.
Early this week, meteorologists warned Marco and Laura could build into hurricanes at the same time, subjecting Louisiana to the unprecedented destruction of tandem hurricanes spinning in from the Gulf of Mexico.
Louisianans are not yet out of the woods. The National Weather Service says there is a risk Hurricane Laura will unleash life-threatening storm surges from San Luis Pass, Texas, near Galveston to Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
Galveston Mayor Pro Tem Craig Bowen signed a mandatory evacuation order early Tuesday for the island city’s 50,000 residents.
“Galveston residents should secure loose items at their property and leave the island today. It is urgent that residents heed this mandatory evacuation and leave with all family members and pets,” Bowen said in a statement.
He said city services will be suspended at noon Tuesday and warned first responders will not be coming to the rescue of anyone who chooses to ride out the storm.
“Police and fire will not be available once winds reach tropical storm strength. Those who do not follow the evacuation order should not expect public safety services once conditions worsen,” the city said.
Fifty miles up Interstate 45 in Houston, memories of Hurricane Harvey are still fresh in residents’ minds. Harvey dumped record amounts of rain when it stalled over the city in August 2017 and flooded thousands of homes.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner soothed nerves Monday.
“This is not Harvey. This is not anticipated to be a heavy rain event,” he said at a news conference.
Officials in the Texas counties of Orange and Jefferson on the Louisiana border have also ordered residents to evacuate, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said Monday it is moving inmates out of four prisons in the area.
Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said it is at the mercy of Laura’s track.
“If it goes 20 miles to the east, we should be OK. If it goes 20 miles to the west, we better hold on,” he said. County judges are chief executives in Texas, they don’t preside over courts of law.
The county is home to the nation’s largest refinery in Port Arthur. Motiva Enterprises plans to shut down the refinery on Tuesday, Reuters reported. It produces more than 600,000 barrels of oil a day.
The nation is likely to see a spike in gas prices as workers have also been evacuated from 281 oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Monday, 82.4% of oil production and 56.92% of natural gas production had been suspended in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
Since the start of hurricane season on June 1, meteorologists have been warning 2020 could see a record number of tropical storms threaten the Gulf Coast, leading Texas officials grappling with a surge of Covid-19 cases to fine-tune their emergency plans to ensure evacuees are not cramped in shelters where social distancing is impossible.
In Brazoria County, south of Houston, County Judge Matt Sebesta told local media residents in low-lying areas have been asked to voluntarily evacuate. He said those people have already been tested for Covid-19 and will be sheltered in hotels in Hays County, between San Antonio and Austin, should Laura force them to flee.
The blue skies over Houston Tuesday morning and high humidity gave the impression of just another summer day.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s coming. But it’s coming,” said Petco employee Sam Watson, 18, as she helped a customer.