Laura Becomes Category 1 Hurricane, Expected to Strengthen Before US Landfall

What to Know

  • The latest advisory showed the system with winds of 75 miles per hour
  • A tropical storm warning for the Florida Keys was lifted overnight while one remains for portions of Cuba and the Dry Tortugas
  • Laura churned just south of Cuba after killing at least 11 people in the Dominican Republic and Haiti

While South Florida and the Florida Keys escaped severe weather, parts of the Gulf Coast region are bracing for Hurricane Laura and what could be as strong as a Category 3 storm later this week.

Laura became a hurricane Tuesday morning with maximum sustained winds increasing to 75 miles per hour, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. As of the latest NHC advisory, the system’s center was 585 miles southeast of Lake Charles, Louisiana and it was moving west-northwest at 16 mph.

A tropical storm warning for the Florida Keys was lifted overnight. A tropical storm watch was in effect from San Luis Pass to Freeport, Texas and portions of Louisiana to the Mississippi River, while a hurricane warning is in effect from San Luis Pass to Intracoastal City, Louisiana.

Laura churned just south of Cuba after killing at least 11 people in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, where it knocked out power and caused flooding in the two nations that share the island of Hispaniola.

The deaths reportedly included a 10-year-old girl whose home was hit by a tree and a mother and young son who were crushed by a collapsing wall.

The center of Laura re-emerged off the western coast of Cuba overnight. The storm is forecast to potentially make landfall as a major hurricane near the Texas/Louisiana coast overnight Wednesday. 

“Our sights are on Laura now,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards told a news briefing. “It has the potential to be a major hurricane.”

Shrimp trawlers and fishing boats were tied up in a Louisiana
harbor ahead of the storms. Red flags warned swimmers away from the pounding
surf. Both in-person classes and virtual school sessions were canceled in some
districts.

In Port Arthur, Texas, Mayor Thurman Bartie warned that unless
the forecast changes and pushes Laura’s landfall farther east, he will ask the
city’s more than 54,000 residents to evacuate starting at 6 a.m. Tuesday.

“If you decide to stay, you’re staying on your own,” Bartie
said.

Officials in Houston asked residents to prepare supplies in case
they lose power for a few days or need to evacuate homes along the coast.

Across the border in Louisiana’s Cameron Parish, residents were preparing as well. Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for much of the parish, where officials said seawater pushed inland by the storm could submerge small coastal communities.

In other coastal areas residents moved possessions to higher ground, filled sandbags and in one case, moved pews and other items from a church that has flooded before.

“Right now we’re right in the bullseye but that could change,”
said Jeff Benoit, owner of B&O Kitchen and Grocery, a restaurant and Cajun
food store in the southwest Louisiana city of Lake Charles. He was busy Monday,
keeping track of what local officials were saying and preparing to shut the
small business down if need be.

“It’s just a matter of putting up some meats, making sure that’s
secure, best I can, anyway, and get the heck out of here,” Benoit said.

State emergencies were declared in Louisiana and Mississippi,
and shelters were being opened with cots set farther apart, among other
measures designed to curb coronavirus infections.

Edwards encouraged evacuees to stay with relatives or in hotels. But officials said they made virus-related preparations at state shelters in case they are needed.

NBC 6’s Jamie Guirola and Chief Meteorologist John Morales has the latest on the tropics.

Heavy rain was expected across portions of the north-central Gulf Coast, according to the National Hurricane Center. In Pensacola, Florida, Marco produced a one-day record rainfall of 2.22 inches, breaking a record set in 1961. But forecasters predicted Marco would no longer be a tropical storm by the end of Monday night and issued their final advisory early Tuesday morning.

More workers were being evacuated from production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico in anticipation of Laura’s arrival, reducing offshore oil and gas production to less than one-fifth the normal activity. The Interior Department said Monday that 281 platforms had been evacuated. That’s nearly half of those normally with workers on site.

The department estimated that 82% of oil production and 57% of
natural gas production in the Gulf has been shut down.

Much of the region was also put under a storm surge watch.
Forecasters warned of storm surge as high as 11 feet in western Louisiana. Add
to that 4 to 10 inches of rain expected when Laura arrives starting late
Wednesday.

Once Laura moves into the toasty waters of the Gulf of Mexico that serve as fuel for storms, forecasters predict it will rapidly strengthen ahead of an expected Wednesday landfall. The question is just how much.

“I would still give it a pretty decent chance of a Category 3 or
4, not necessarily at landfall, at least during its lifetime in the Gulf,”
University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy said. Many, but not all,
storms in that area weaken just before landfall because of a late influx of dry
air, he said.

The punch from back-to-back storms comes just days before the
Aug. 29 anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which breached the levees in New
Orleans, flattened much of the Mississippi coast and killed as many as 1,800
people in 2005. Then a little less than a month later came Hurricane Rita which
struck southwest Louisiana on Sept. 24 as a Category 3 storm.

On the Louisiana coast at Holly Beach in an area nicknamed the
“Cajun Riviera,” Eric Monceaux was frantically packing what he could take with
him. Hit first by Hurricane Rita in 2005 and again by Ike in 2008, he does not
plan to come back if Laura does its worst.

“That would be strike three,” he said. “I’m 62, and I gave
it two strikes. The third one is ‘strike three, you’re out’ like a baseball
game.”