All signs are there and have been for days. Hurricane Laura is likely going to make landfall near the Texas and Louisiana border as a major hurricane (Category 3 or higher). In fact, there is a strong likelihood that it will be at least a Category 4 storm or greater at some point in its lifecycle. Hurricane Harvey (2017) and Hurricane Michael (2018) were category 4 or stronger storms in recent years. Here are the 5 obvious and subtle concerns that I have about Hurricane Laura as the storm approaches the U.S.
It is already strong and getting stronger. As of Tuesday morning, Hurricane Laura is exhibiting characteristics of an intensifying storm. The latest guidance from the National Hurricane Center points out, “The hurricane has intensified a remarkable 40 kt during the past 24 hours, and there are no signs it will stop soon, with shear remaining low-to-moderate over the deep warm waters of the central Gulf of Mexico.” Hurricane hunter aircraft are also finding surface winds in the 110-115 mph range, according to tropical weather expert Levi Cowan. Tomer Burg, a doctoral student at the University of Oklahoma (and one of the best Twitter follows for this type of stuff), tweeted, “….the rate of deepening continues to accelerate with a drop of 4-5 hPa in ONE hour. As @webberweather noted, there are similarities to Harvey (& I’d argue Michael) quickly deepening before landfall with continued structural improvement.” Increased lightning activity in outer bands and the eyewall (see above) are also typically signs of intensification.
There may be some wind shear that Laura experiences right at landfall. Such shear interactions may slightly degrades the storm, but it will still be extremely dangerous so don’t get caught up in the semantics. There is not much difference between a high-end category 3 storm and low-end category 4 storm in terms of impacts.
The size of the storm. Hurricane Laura is a much larger storm than Tropical Storm Marco from a few days ago. This means that impacts of the wind field, rainfall, tornadoes, and storm surge will be experienced well beyond the landfall area. I am also concerned that hurricane-intensity winds will be felt well inland because of the size of the storm and its forward speed. Here in Georgia, we have experience with Hurricane Michael (2018). According to weather expert Pam Knox, the University of Georgia Automated Weather Network that she manages recorded wind gusts in southwest Georgia over 100 mph. The threat of power outages, downed trees, and flooding are relevant well inland as well as along the coast.
Timing. I am speaking of timing from two different perspectives. Hurricane Laura will likely make landfall under the cover at night, which is always a concern. It is also affecting a region already suffering, as we all are, through the coronavirus pandemic. The backdrop of COVID-19 makes Laura even more of a challenge. The map above shows confirmed coronavirus cases confirmed by population. The region about to experience Hurricane Laura and its impacts has also been significantly impacted by COVID-19. In a normal year, certain questions are asked when a major hurricane is approaching. This year, a new set of questions needs to be added: How do I social distance in shelters? Are certain places safer to evacuate to? or Did I remember to get masks or disinfectants/sanitizer? Additionally, emergency managers at all levels are already stretched thin because of coronavirus response.
Storm surge. According to NOAA storm surge predictions, peak levels of 10-15 feet are now expected in eastern Texas and parts of Louisiana. Storm surge is typically one of the deadliest aspects of a hurricane of this magnitude. It is imperative that people in surge-vulnerable areas evacuate now (or hopefully already did). Depending on the tidal cycle, the surge could be amplified even more according to NOAA.
The petrochemical facilities. Earlier in the week, I tweeted the map below showing the large concentration of refineries in the path of Hurricane Laura. Much of the nation’s refinery capacity and petrochemical infrastructure is in the region expecting direct impacts from the hurricane. Additionally, there are numerous oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico that have likely been evacuated. While these things can certainly lead to supply issues that get passed downstream to consumers, I am more concerned about infrastructure and potential hazards. Susan Anenberg, an associate professor of global public health at George Washington University, told me via Twitter, “We found 872 highly hazardous chemical facilities within 50 miles of the hurricane prone US Gulf Coast….Over 4 million people, 1,717 schools, and 98 medical facilities within 1.5 miles of these facilities.”
This is not a storm to be taken lightly especially given everything else that we are dealing with in 2020.