Hurricane Laura: The Worst is Likely Yet to Come

Climate chaos hits the US East and West coasts weeks ahead of peak hurricane and wildfire season.

While most of America was in bed, at around 1 a.m. Eastern Time today the strongest hurricane to hit Louisiana in 164 years made landfall in the small community of Cameron in the Lake Charles metropolitan area as a “high-end” Category 4 storm.

map showing wildfire smoke and hurricane
As wildfire smoke blanketed much of the West, particularly California and Colorado, Hurricane Laura approached the Louisiana coast on August 26. Image by Stuart Rankin.

Since last evening we had been hearing weather experts talk about how Hurricane Laura — which packed 150 miles per hour peak winds when it crossed the coast — would unleash an “unsurvivable storm surge” that could push waters as far as 40 miles inland and cause “catastrophic damage.” We had been hearing about how it’s impact would likely be worse than Katrina’s, which devastated Gulf Coast communities 15 years ago, and how that’s linked to rising sea levels caused by climate change.

So it was a bit of a relief to wake up to the news that, though there has been extensive property damage and over half-a-million homes and businesses have been left without power in Louisiana and Texas, there were not yet any reported fatalities.

That relief was short-lived. Governor John Bel Edwards soon confirmed the first fatality during an MSNBC interview — a 14-year-old girl in Leesville who died after the storm knocked a tree onto her home. “I suspect that won’t be the last, but I pray we don’t have anymore,” Edwards said. In other words, the worst yet to come.

Laura is still heading north, though it has now downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane and is expected to reduce to a tropical storm as the day wears on. But don’t be fooled, it is still carrying sustained winds of more than 100 mph and the National Hurricane Center still has a storm surge warning in effect from High Island, TX, to the mouth of the Mississippi River. (And there’s a now tornado watch issued for parts of Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana until 5 p.m. Eastern Time today.)

“Surge-related flooding depends on the relative timing of the surge and the tidal cycle, and can vary greatly over short distances,” the center explains, saying that the surge could be as high as 15 to 20 feet along some parts of the Louisiana-Texas coastline — from Sea Rim State Park, TX to Intracoastal City, LA — and will be accompanied by large and destructive waves in some places.

The flooding caused by storm surges — which are a result of high winds pushing rising water higher than the normal tideline inland — can be deadly as it can trap people in their homes for days and hamper rescue efforts. Now, of course, as many of us have been fearing for a while, the pandemic is going to further exacerbate the situation.

And let’s not forget, this hurricane is slamming into America’s oil refining and export heartland — the region is home to more than half of the nation’s oil refineries, which poses a further environmental threat. There are over 60 oil refineries and other petrochemical plants in Laura’s path, plants that contribute to the climate crisis that is making hurricanes like Laura more intense.

The oil and gas industry closed down many of its wells, refineries, and port facilities in the region ahead of the hurricane. While that’s a probably the safest thing to do, closing down these plants cause another set of problems — an increase in hazardous emissions as a result of flaring gases during the shutdown process.

During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, reports filed by companies to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) show that more than 5.7 million pounds of air pollution were released by chemical plants, oil refineries, and industrial facilities in the month after the storm made landfall.

“It feels like we’re living Hurricane Harvey all over again,” Juan Parras, founder and co-executive director of the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS), said in a statement this morning. “Communities from the East End of Houston and all the way down to Baytown, Texas deal with year-round toxic air pollution from refineries and petrochemical complexes, and they’re suffering from higher rates of Covid-19 right now. With Hurricane Laura’s impact, these facilities are emitting even more life-threatening pollutants. Local officials may have turned off all air quality monitors in the area, arguing that they’re ‘too expensive’ to replace, but we can still smell the chemicals. “

A Grist report yesterday estimated that even when shut down, Texas oil refineries in Hurricane Laura’s path will emit nearly 4 million pounds of pollution.

In Louisiana, a suspected chemical cloud has already led to a closure of Interstate 10 near Lake Charles, LA, and officials are warning people to stay away.

Unsurprisingly, most of these oil and gas facilities are located in communities with above-average rates of poverty. While these communities will suffer the worst brunt of Laura, the hit to industry is minor and temporary. As this Forbes report points out: “Typically, these Gulf of Mexico hurricanes can be good news for price of oil equities. Even if some of a company’s production or refining capacity is disrupted, the higher commodity prices are generally a good sign for oil company stock.”

This hurricane of unprecedented force is still raging as I write this, sitting in a cabin in far away Northern California, which has been witnessing some of the worst-ever wildfires in the state. Note that, hurricane season on the East Coast and the wildfire season on the West Coast are actually expected to hit their peaks a few weeks from now.

Which means, again, it’s likely that the worst is yet to come.

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