‘In the bull’s-eye’: Gulf refineries shutting down ahead of 2 storms

As Tropical Storm Marco made landfall, the Gulf Coast turned its attention to Laura, another system following just behind that could grow into a supercharged Category 3 hurricane with winds topping 110 mph and a storm surge that could swamp entire towns.

Laura, which became a hurricane Tuesday morning, 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 National Hurricane Center projected that Laura will become a Category 3 hurricane before landfall, with winds of around 115 mph, capable of devastating damage.

“The main point is that we’re going to have a significant hurricane make landfall late Wednesday or early Thursday,” National Hurricane Center Deputy Director Ed Rappaport said Tuesday.

The decapitating cross winds that killed Marco are not present, so there is little to keep Laura from turbocharging. Nearly all the computer simulations that forecasters rely on show rapid strengthening at some point in the next couple of days.

“The waters are warm enough everywhere there to support a major hurricane, Category 3 or even higher. The waters are very warm where the storm is now and will be for the entire path up until the Gulf Coast,” Rappaport said.

Meanwhile, oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico was slowed by the storms’ approach that led companies to remove workers from more than 100 offshore platforms.

The U.S. Interior Department said at least 114 platforms had been evacuated. That is 18% of the staffed platforms in the Gulf, but they account for 58% of Gulf oil production and 45% of its natural gas output.

Energy companies are also moving drilling rigs used to explore for oil and gas.

Marco is closer to the Gulf coast, but forecasters are more concerned about Laura. As of Tuesday morning, Laura was about 81 miles northeast of the western tip of Cuba and 765 miles southeast of Lake Charles, Louisiana. The storm was moving west-northwest at 20 mph with maximum sustained winds of 65 mph.

A spokesman for Norway’s Equinor said workers were taken off the company’s Titan platform, and production was stopped, according to The Associated Press. During the last few days, Exxon, Chevron, BP and Shell also began evacuating some platforms and drilling rigs. A Shell spokesman said workers will be screened for COVID-19 before returning to offshore facilities.

Patrick DeHaan, an analyst for GasBuddy, said gasoline inventories are high, and the storms are unlikely to move pump prices unless refineries on land are damaged.

“Gasoline demand is weakening seasonally, and along with COVID-19, demand is running around 15% below last year,” he told the AP. “There is likely enough breathing room that even if a few refineries had to slow production of gasoline down, there should not be much if any impact to retail gasoline prices in the region or nationally.”

The center of Laura will move away from Cuba and over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico. The storm is then forecast to move over the central and northwestern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday night and Wednesday, and approach the northwestern coast of the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday night.

“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. 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 beginning Tuesday.

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 moved pews and other items from a church that has flooded before.

“Right now we’re right in the bull’s-eye, 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 down the small business 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.

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.