On the third anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, Gov. Greg Abbott pleaded with Texas coastal communities to heed warnings about Hurricane Laura, which was expected to make landfall Wednesday night, according to meteorologists.
The state, still in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, kicked preparations into high gear Tuesday as Laura barreled toward the coast around the Texas-Louisiana border, growing in strength before likely becoming a major hurricane. The Austin-American Statesman, which is a part of the USA TODAY Network, reported this story.
Shelters in Austin, San Antonio and the Dallas-Fort Worth area were getting ready to accept evacuees, gasoline was being surged to communities likely to be affected by the storm, and evacuation orders were issued in coastal communities and parts of Harris County near Houston.
The mayors of Galveston and Port Arthur early Tuesday imposed mandatory evacuations, urging residents to get out of harm’s way.
What you need to know: Hurricane Laura forecast to ‘rapidly strengthen’ to Category 4 storm as hundreds of thousands evacuate
Abbott also added 36 counties Tuesday to his Sunday disaster declaration. The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Monday that federal emergency aid had been approved for the state in response to Laura.
“The timing issue is that we have only a few more hours for people to make sure they take the action that is needed to ensure their safety and the safety of their property,” Abbott said Tuesday afternoon.
Abbott said Laura might land as a Category 3 hurricane and could produce a storm surge of 10 feet of water where it comes ashore in Texas.
“People anywhere near where the eye of the hurricane will come ashore will need to be very aware of this high water surge and the devastation that it could wreck, being very aware to make sure that you are not near that because it can easily sweep you away, causing you to lose your life,” Abbott said. “Also, property anywhere near where that surge will take place is subject to devastating damage.”
Water rescue boat teams, helicopters, buses, high-water vehicles and additional law enforcement and emergency response officials were being mustered for the storm.
Abbott said law enforcement officers would respond to the hurricane to help prevent looting and protect private property.
Storm surge and hurricane warnings were in effect Tuesday afternoon for areas along the Gulf Coast from San Luis Pass, south of Houston, to the mouth of the Mississippi River in eastern Louisiana.
Hurricane Laura will be similar to hurricanes Ike and Rita, Abbott said, which delivered more wind damage and less like Hurricane Harvey, which produced much heavier flooding.
At 4 p.m. Tuesday, Laura was about 510 miles southeast of Galveston and had sustained winds of 80 mph, the National Hurricane Center said. The center of the storm was heading west-northwest at 17 mph.
Some of the most wooded regions in the state are in Laura’s path, Abbott said. The Texas A&M Forest Service has incident management teams, including chainsaw crews, ready to help clear fallen trees.
Heavy rainfall is expected with the hurricane and tornadoes will be possible, Abbott warned. River flooding and flash flooding will be possible with the rain, he said.
The hurricane might exit Texas as early as the end of Thursday, Abbott said.
“Those who stay behind may be caught in a situation where rescue teams may be challenged in being able to rescue from a situation that could cause you to lose your life, so please heed local warnings so you can take the action in advance that is needed,” he said.
Response in a pandemic
Unlike the hurricanes before it, Laura is expected to land during a pandemic, which has left more than 10,000 Texans dead so far.
“Remember, just because a hurricane is coming to Texas does not mean that COVID-19 either has or is going to leave Texas,” Abbott said.
To combat the spread of the coronavirus while still getting residents to safety, Abbott said the number of evacuees allowed on state and local buses will be reduced, causing them to take more trips, and personal protective equipment will be provided at shelters.
Coronavirus testing will be provided at some shelters, said Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Department of Emergency Management.
“Now, those points and times and locations have not been determined yet, but as a community sees the need to open a shelter, we will support them, sending in PPE and then as soon as practical, we’ll get testing teams in there as well,” Kidd said.
In Austin, emergency management staff are preparing to accept as many as 3,000 evacuees to house in hotels in the city. Abbott said a shelter was being set up at Circuit of the Americas.
Austin and Travis, Williamson and Hays counties activated the Capital Area Shelter Hub Plan at the state’s request Tuesday. Because of the pandemic, evacuees will be held in hotels instead of in one or a few large shelters.
“Obviously, this year it is different with the considerations for COVID-19; traditionally we have shelters set up in schools, that’s not going to be how we’re going to operate this year,” said Austin’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management spokesman Bryce Bencivengo.
The locations of the hotels for evacuees are not being made public, but they will not be the same hotels currently being used to isolate coronavirus patients, he said.
Bencivengo said Austin was working specifically with evacuees from Galveston County, but evacuees from other places also could come to Austin. It’s unclear exactly how many evacuees Austin and the surrounding areas could serve. During Hurricane Harvey, the city housed as many as 850 evacuees in one night.
Bencivengo said evacuees will be asked a series of COVID-19 screening questions upon arrival, and they have access to personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer.
He said they also will be asked to stay in their rooms as much as possible, and not congregate with other evacuees or in other people’s rooms. However, they will be allowed to leave the hotels.
“This is a different situation,” Bencivengo said. “Traditionally we have curfews at shelters and things like that. I don’t think that’s going to be the case in this situation. So yes, individuals that they have a vehicle will be able to leave and go pick up groceries or go to a restaurant or go to a park. But again, we’re going to encourage social distancing and masking, just like we would with our citizens that are residents here in Austin.”
Weather in Austin, Texas
The hurricane will not have a significant effect on the Austin area, bringing only up to an inch of rain over Wednesday and Thursday, meteorologists said.
Rain chances will hover between 20% and 30% and scattered showers and thunderstorms will be possible, said Aaron Treadway, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
“It is another shot of rain in a prolonged dry period,” Treadway said, noting how dry Austin has been since June.
Between June 1 and Aug. 25, Austin’s main weather station at Camp Mabry recorded just 4.57 inches of rainfall. Normally during that time, the city gets 7.95 inches of rain, Treadway said.
The rain brought by the hurricane will likely not be enough to pull parts of Travis County out of a moderate drought or abnormally dry conditions. In the U.S. Drought Monitor’s latest update on Aug. 20, areas of northern Travis County were in a moderate drought. Areas in the center of the county were listed as being abnormally dry.
Heat also will remain even as Laura rolls through Texas. Highs in Austin are expected to be in the 90s on Wednesday and Thursday before they return to the triple digits Friday, Treadway said.
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