Hurricane Laura made landfall on the US’s Gulf of Mexico coast early on Thursday, threatening an “unsurvivable” surge of seawater in the heartland of American oil refining, natural gas exports and petrochemicals production.
The US National Hurricane Center said Laura was an “extremely dangerous hurricane” with “extreme winds and flash flooding” expected in coastal areas of Texas and Louisiana.
Laura’s winds of up to 150mph are expected to cause an “unsurvivable storm surge”, according to the NHC, which issued a warning for a 400-mile swath of the Gulf coast from Freeport, Texas, to the Mississippi River.
Laura crossed the US coast near the Louisiana town of Cameron. The centre of the storm was on track to pass between Port Arthur, Texas, and Lake Charles, Louisiana, two of the most important oil refinery hubs in the country.
Refineries with a total capacity of 2.2m barrels per day of oil were closing plants or reducing volumes in advance of the storm, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics — about a quarter of the refining capacity on the Texas and Louisiana coasts.
The affected refineries included North America’s largest, Motiva Enterprises’ 630,000 b/d plant at Port Arthur, as well as Citgo’s 425,000 b/d refinery at Lake Charles, S&P said.
With the US exporting about 3m b/d of crude oil and 5m b/d of refined petroleum products this year, disruptions to Gulf infrastructure could affect global energy markets as well as US consumers.
The largest liquefied natural gas export terminal in the US, Cheniere Energy’s plant at Sabine Pass, Louisiana, has also suspended operations as employees were evacuated, a spokesman confirmed.
Tropical cyclones can cause severe damage and death on the Gulf coast. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey dumped nearly 4 feet of water while it lingered for days around Houston, flooding neighbourhoods and causing environmental damage as a chemical plant exploded.
Authorities said Lake Charles, a Louisiana city of 80,000 people, was likely to bear the brunt of the storm and the subsequent surge. Power in the city failed at about midnight local time.
Water levels in Lake Charles were expected to reach 16 feet, far exceeding the local 13-foot record set in 1913. “This country is bayou, it’s low-lying anyway, and the storm surge is going to be catastrophic,” said John Carroll, a meteorologist.
Many residents evacuated on Wednesday ahead of the closure of the main I-10 highway out of the city. Elizabeth Kelly, a Lake Charles accountant, said she left at 6am on Wednesday for safety in Jackson, Mississippi, 300 miles away. “We just unplugged everything,” she told the Financial Times. “We won’t be back for a while.”
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Laura will probably be a weaker hurricane at its peak than Hurricane Rita, which struck in September 2005 — a month after Katrina devastated New Orleans — but should be stronger at landfall than Rita’s 120mph winds. Rita produced a 15-foot storm surge and caused $25.2bn in damage.
The National Weather Service predicted Laura would dump 5-10 inches of rain before quickly moving inland. On Wednesday afternoon US gasoline futures dropped 3.6 per cent to $1.35 a gallon, partially reversing a rally this week.
Additional reporting by George Russell in Hong Kong