Hurricane Laura is poised to become a Category 4 storm that could wreak catastrophic damage in Texas and Louisiana, bringing a life-threatening storm surge, flash flooding and destructive winds that could leave areas uninhabitable for weeks or months.
Laura's winds are forecast to peak at 130 miles per hour over the Gulf of Mexico, but may weaken slightly before hitting the coast on Thursday, according to the National Hurricane Center. The jump in power means the storm could cause $20 billion to $25 billion in damage and economic losses, Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler with Enki Research, said on his blog.
For anyone living in an area that floods or is in the direct path of Laura's landfall, "there is not calculation to be made: Get out," Watson said. "Whatever fears you might have about COVID are secondary -- even those with heath issues that might make riding out a weaker storm an option."
Though strong hurricanes often lose power just before landfall, Laura's forward speed might prevent that from happening, allowing it to come ashore as a Category 4 storm, said Don Keeney, a meteorologist with commercial forecaster Maxar.
The storm is targeting the heart of America's energy industry. It's already shut more than 80% of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and 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."
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, said Jim Rouiller, lead meteorologist with the Energy Weather Group. 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% of oil output and nearly 61% 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 25 miles 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 15 feet in the Sabine Pass area and along parts of the Texas coast where the Henry Hub is located, the hurricane center said at 5 a.m. New York time. Storm surges kill almost half of all people who die in hurricanes.