NEW ORLEANS — As Tropical Storm Marco fell apart, the Gulf Coast turned its attention Monday 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.
Still a tropical storm for now, 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.
Laura was not expected to weaken over land before moving into warm, deep Gulf waters that forecasters said could bring rapid intensification.
“We’re only going to dodge the bullet so many times. And the current forecast for Laura has it focused intently on Louisiana,” Gov. John Bel Edwards told a news briefing.
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.
“We are battle-tested. We are ready to deal with this situation as well,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Monday.
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.
As Marco was on its deathbed, the National Hurricane Center issued its first storm watches for Laura.
Forecasters posted a hurricane watch from Port Bolivar, Texas, to Morgan City, Louisiana, a tropical storm watch from Port Bolivar to San Luis Pass, Texas, and from Morgan City to the mouth of the Mississippi, where a collapsing Marco hovered.
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.
By late afternoon, Marco clung to 40 mph winds away from its pulled-apart center, which was 15 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi. Forecasters predicted it would no longer be a tropical storm by the end of the night.
Laura was struggling to organize around its center as part of the system scraped over Cuba, preventing the wind from strengthening beyond 60 mph, but scientists at the National Hurricane Center predicted that would not last.
Once Laura moves into the toasty waters of the Gulf of Mexico that serve as fuel for storms, forecasters predict it will rapidly strengthen to hurricane status 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.
Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for much of Cameron Parish on the Texas border, where officials said seawater pushed inland by the storm could submerge communities including Cameron, population about 410.
“We want everybody to get out safely,” said Ashley Buller, the assistant director for emergency preparedness.
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.
August Creppel, chief of the United Houma Nation, was worried about the group’s 17,000 members, spread out over six parishes along the Louisiana coast. He took part in a ceremony Saturday at the Superdome in New Orleans that included Native American singing and prayers to commemorate the hurricane’s 15th anniversary.
“We know our people are going to get hit. We just don’t know who yet,” said Creppel, who has been in contact with the Red Cross to get supplies once the weather eases.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.”