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Louisiana residents flee as the state braces for back-to-back Tropical Storms Marco and Laura

Louisiana residents prepared to flee the state as Tropical Storm Marco approached for an expected landfall around midday Monday, while Tropical Storm Laura is forecast to move along Cuba’s southern coast during the day before entering the Gulf of Mexico.

The Gulf Coast braced for a history-making onslaught from the twin storms, with many evacuees recalling the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when catastrophic flooding breached the levees in New Orleans and as many as 1,800 people died.

‘What we know is there’s going to be storm surge from Marco, we know that that water is not going to recede hardly at all before Laura hits, and so we’ve not seen this before and that’s why people need to be paying particular attention,’ Gov John Bel Edwards warned at a Sunday briefing.

Marco had grown into a hurricane early Sunday, but the National Hurricane Center said its sustained winds decreased to 70mph after nightfall. 

According to the National Weather Service, tropical-storm-force winds are expected in the lower and middle Keys later Monday, ‘particularly during squalls associated with passing rain bands’. The area may also see winds ranging between 25 to 35mph and gusts as high as 45 to 50mph in squalls.  

Texas is also under a tropical storm warning as forecasters predict that Tropical Storm Laura could bring a significant amount of storm surge, strong winds and flooding rainfall to parts of the Louisiana and Texas coasts later this week. 

According to Weather.com, the center of Laura is most likely to make landfall somewhere from the upper Texas coast to the southwest or central Louisiana coast. 

Despite Marco’s weakening, a storm surge warning remained in place from Morgan City, Louisiana, to Ocean Springs, Mississippi. 

A tropical storm warning included Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana, and metropolitan New Orleans. A storm surge of up to 4 feet was forecast for parts of coastal Louisiana and Mississippi.

Along the main drag on the barrier island of Grand Isle, south of New Orleans, Starfish Restaurant manager Nicole Fantiny could see an exodus of people driving off the island. ‘They are all packing up and leaving,’ she said.

Fantiny wasn’t planning to leave, at least for Marco, but she was anxious about the possible one-two punch from both storms. Her husband works with the town´s fire and police departments, so she said they are always among the last ones to leave. ‘My house was built in 1938 so I think we’re good,’ she said hopefully. 

Meanwhile, Laura was centered about 175 miles east-southeast of Cayo Largo on Monday morning, and had maximum sustained winds of 65mph. 

It was moving west-northwest at 21mph and was predicted to strengthen into a hurricane by Tuesday morning as it followed a path likely to take it to the Louisiana coast by Wednesday night, forecasters said.

Experts said computer models show Laura could make landfall with winds exceeding 110mph, and rain bands from both storms could bring a combined total of two feet of rain to parts of Louisiana and several feet of potentially deadly storm surge.

‘There has never been anything we’ve seen like this before, where you can have possibly two hurricanes hitting within miles of each over a 48-hour period,’ said Benjamin Schott, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service’s Slidell, Louisiana, office.

The combination of the rain and storm surge in a day or two means ‘you’re looking at a potential for a major flood event that lasts for some time,’ said weather service tropical program coordinator Joel Cline. ‘And that’s not even talking about the wind.’ 

President Donald Trump approved Louisiana’s request for federal help related to the pair of storms, Gov Edwards said in a news release Sunday.

He had submitted the request to Trump and the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Saturday.

Trump also approved an emergency declaration for Mississippi, according to a White House news release late Sunday.

University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy warned that anyone in New Orleans should be alarmed by the threat. At issue from possible dual hits: whether the levee system can withstand the stress, he said.

In New Orleans, the city’s aging drainage system has been a particular point of concern in recent years after an intense 2017 storm flooded streets and raised questions about the system’s viability.

Because the city is surrounded by levees and parts are below sea level, rainwater must be pumped out to prevent flooding. Any storm system that sits over the city and dumps rain for extended periods of time, or bands of rain that come in rapid succession, is a cause for concern.

New Orleans resident Matthew Meloy and two friends loaded a van with cases of bottled water in the parking lot of a New Orleans Walmart Sunday. He said they still have a lot of storm preparations ahead.

‘Check the batteries, flashlights, stocking up on food and trying to park the car on the highest point possible we can find,’ he said. ‘I already spent like 40 minutes this morning filling up the tanks in the cars.’

Tourists were strolling through the New Orleans French Quarter under overcast skies as workers boarded up shop windows. Louisiana corrections officials were evacuating 500 inmates from a jail in Plaquemines Parish, near the coast, to another facility in preparation for the storms.

In Kenner, just outside New Orleans, resident P.J. Hahn said checkout lines in a Sam’s Club reached to the back of the store, while authorities said 114 oil and gas producing platforms in the Gulf have been evacuated as the storms churn toward the Louisiana coast.

‘The central Gulf could be really under the gun between Marco and Laura in back-to-back succession,’ said Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach. ‘Certainly both of these storms can impact New Orleans significantly. It just remains to be seen if the track for Laura tracks a bit to the west.’ 

‘It, unfortunately, might peak in intensity about landfall. That’s the one thing I worry about with this one,’ MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel said of Laura. 

His multiple computer simulations show a decent chance of winds of more than 110mph for Laura at landfall, as do other computer models.

The key for Laura’s future is how it survives Cuba. Originally forecast to rake over almost the entire length of the island and potentially weaken, the storm late Sunday moved further south, skirting the island. If that continues, it is more likely to come out strong enough to power up over the favorable environment of the Gulf of Mexico, Klotzbach said.

Laura could hit further west in the Gulf, possibly into Texas instead of Louisiana, he said. If it hits Louisiana that would break the record for two named storms hitting the state so close together. The current record is five days apart in 1885, Klotzbach said.

And there’s one long-term possibility that adds to the risk. As Laura moves north after landfall into Oklahoma, there’s a chance it will be caught up into the jet stream, travel east and emerge over North Carolina and return to tropical storm status, McNoldy and Klotzbach said.

On Monday, it was revealed that Motiva Enterprises may shut the largest crude oil refinery in the United States for the passage of Marco and Laura later this week.

The company’s 607,000 barrel-per-day refinery in the coastal city of Port Arthur, Texas, could be drenched by both storms between Tuesday and the end of the week based on current forecasts, the sources said.

During 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, about five feet of rain fell on the refinery in late August, forcing Motiva to completely shut down for nearly two weeks.

In 2018, because of the disruption during Harvey, the company cancelled plans to expand the refinery citing the threat of heavy flooding in the low-lying Port Arthur area during a future tropical storm.

Company officials have not yet decided whether the refinery will shut down during the storms, sources said.

Motiva is owned by Saudi Aramco and in 2019 bought a petrochemical plant in Port Arthur next to the refinery.

Laura caused the deaths of at least 11 people in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, while knocking out power and causing flooding in the two nations that share the island of Hispaniola.

Haitian civil protection officials said they had received reports a 10-year-old girl was killed when a tree fell on a home in the southern coastal town of Anse-a-Pitres, on the border with the Dominican Republic. 

Haiti’s prime minister said at least eight other people died and two were missing. 

In the Dominican Republic, relatives told reporters a collapsed wall killed a mother and her young son.

Hundreds of thousands were without power in the Dominican Republic amid heavy flooding in both countries.  

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