HOUSTON (REUTERS) – Hurricane Marco and Tropical Storm Laura tore through the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico on Sunday (Aug 23), forcing thousands of coastal residents in Louisiana and Cuba to flee and flooding roads in Haiti’s capital, with damage across the region expected to worsen this week.
Marco, which strengthened into a hurricane on Sunday with sustained winds of 75mph (120kmh), is forecast to make landfall along the Louisiana coast on Monday.
Laura, which hit the Dominican Republic and Haiti earlier on Sunday, killing at least 10 people, before striking Cuba on Sunday evening, is forecast to strengthen into a hurricane on Wednesday before making landfall in Texas or Louisiana on Thursday.
US President Donald Trump issued a disaster declaration on Sunday for Louisiana ahead of the storms. He had issued a similar declaration on Saturday for Puerto Rico, which suffered extensive rains from Laura.
In New Orleans, Mr Billy Wright spent his Sunday buying bottled water, non-perishable food and an attic ax, which can be used to chop through a roof if floodwaters block doors and windows. The 33-year-old attorney and his fiancée live in a one-story house mere blocks away from a canal that failed during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
“You’d rather have it and not need it than be stuck in your attic with rising floodwaters,” said Mr Wright. “Getting two storms back to back is a big concern.”
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards warned the state’s residents that tropical storm-force winds would arrive by Monday morning and they should be ready to ride out both Marco and Laura if they don’t leave by Sunday night.
Laura could strengthen into a Category 2 or 3 hurricane on the 5-step Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane intensity and move west, closer to Houston, the fourth-largest American city, said Mr Chris Kerr, a meteorologist at DTN, an energy, agriculture and weather data provider.
Category 2 storms have sustained winds of at least 96mph (155kmh). The threshold for Category 3 storms is 111mph (178kmh).
In the Dominican Republic, at least three people died, including a mother and her 7-year-old son, due to collapsing walls. Laura left more than a million in the country without electricity, forced more than a thousand to evacuate and caused several homes along the Isabela River to collapse, authorities said.
In Port-au-Prince, videos on social media showed people wading waist-deep in muddy water in some of the worst flooding the Haitian capital has seen in years.
Haitian authorities reported five deaths so far, including at least two people swept away in flooding and a ten-year old girl crushed when a tree fell on her home. Coastal neighborhoods of the capital were strewn with debris.
Laura hit eastern Cuba on Sunday evening with sustained winds of 60mph (95 kmh) downing trees and ripping flimsy roofing from buildings as it began a forecast 24-hour-treck from east to west along the southern coast of the largest island of the Caribbean.
The Cuban government said power was cut in the easternmost province of Guantanamo and would be shut down province by province as winds picked up across the country as a preventive measure.
Officials and residents, already exhausted by a six-month battle with the coronavirus pandemic and the severe scarcity it has brought, scrambled as Laura bore down to evacuate thousands along the coast and in inland areas vulnerable to flooding.
Back-to-back hurricanes arriving at the US coast within days could result in a prolonged period of hazardous weather, the National Hurricane Center said on Sunday.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent teams to operations centres in Louisiana and Texas, said spokesman Earl Armstrong. The agency is prepared to handle back-to-back storms, he said, pointing to 2004 when four hurricanes took aim at Florida in a six-week period.
Officials in Louisiana’s coastal Lafourche Parish ordered a mandatory evacuation for residents of low-lying areas at noon on Sunday. The US Coast Guard also raised its warning for the Port of New Orleans, calling for ships to make plans to evacuate some areas.
“If either storm turns into a Category 3, we’re out of here,” said Mr Jude Brunet, 33, who works in information technology for a New Orleans hospital.
The potential for flooding and evacuations added to worries about the spread of Covid-19. Tulane University, the largest private employer in New Orleans, said it will close its testing centre on Monday due to potential flooding and power outages.
In Grand Isle, at Louisiana’s southern tip, authorities were placing sandbags to bolster its protective levy while energy companies continued to pull workers from offshore platforms and shut down oil production.
Equinor has finished evacuating its Titan oil-production platform in the US Gulf of Mexico and shut-in oil production at the facility, a spokesman said on Sunday. BHP Group Plc also shut and evacuated its Shenzi and Neptune oil platforms, a spokeswoman said.
Oil producers, including BP Plc, Chevron Corp and Royal Dutch Shell Plc, had shut 58 per cent of the Gulf’s offshore oil production and 45 per cent of natural gas production on Sunday. The region accounts for 17 per cent of total US oil production and 5 per cent of US natural gas output.