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Hurricane Laura on track to become life-threatening storm (with forecast video)

Satellite animation of major Hurricane Laura in the Gulf of Mexico.

Laura could become the strongest hurricane to hit the continental United States since Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm, destroyed portions of the Florida Panhandle in October 2018.

SONAR Critical Events: Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, 8 a.m. EDT; Tropical Storm Laura

Laura was just a tropical depression in the Atlantic one week ago, transforming into a tropical storm within two days, a Category 1 hurricane Tuesday and then quickly to a Category 3 hurricane by early Wednesday morning.

Ports are getting ready to shut down ahead of the storm. Port Houston will temporarily close beginning Wednesday, and the U.S. Coast Guard has temporarily closed some ports in Louisiana, issuing port condition Zulu.

During port condition Zulu, no vessels may enter or move within ports without permission from the captain of the port (COTP), and all ship-to-shore operations must cease until further notice.

Ports in Louisiana that won’t be closed will remain open with restrictions. Oil refineries in the landfall region may have to shut down, and crews will likely evacuate offshore oil rigs.

Laura’s maximum sustained winds were 115 mph as of 8 a.m. EDT Wednesday. It was spinning over the Gulf of Mexico, about 335 miles southeast of Galveston, Texas.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) is forecasting Laura to continue rapid intensification (RI) Wednesday, saying it will be a very destructive Category 3 or 4 hurricane at landfall in the U.S. Gulf Coast tonight. The RI is fueled by the very warm sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the Gulf, as well as limited wind shear. Shear, which can tear apart tropical cyclones, is changes in wind direction and speed with altitude. The NHC expects “life-threatening storm surge, extreme winds and flash flooding,” according to its latest report.

Not only is Laura getting stronger, but it’s getting bigger. Hurricane-force winds extend up to 70 miles from the eye of the hurricane, and tropical-storm-force winds were measured as far away as 175 miles.

On its current track, Laura’s eye will make landfall around midnight tonight local time, give or take an hour or two, near the Texas-Louisiana border. A hurricane warning remains in effect, until further notice, from San Luis Pass, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana, a stretch of approximately 300 miles. This is where the worst damage could occur.

Tropical storm conditions are expected to reach the coast in the hurricane warning area late afternoon or tonight. Hurricane conditions are forecast to reach the hurricane warning area tonight and Thursday. Hurricane-force winds and damaging wind gusts will likely spread well inland into portions of eastern Texas and western Louisiana early Thursday, and people who can’t or choose not to evacuate should prepare for long-term power outages and limited telephone communication.

The combination of a dangerous storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline. Water could reach heights of 10 to 15 feet in some areas.

The deepest water will occur along the immediate coast near and to the east of the landfall location, where the surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves. This storm surge could penetrate up to 30 miles inland from the immediate coastline in southwestern Louisiana and far eastern Texas.

On top of the storm surge, Laura could produce rainfall totals of 5 to 10 inches from Wednesday afternoon through Friday, with isolated maximum amounts of 15 inches from western Louisiana to far eastern Texas and northward into much of Arkansas. Over the lower to middle Mississippi Valley — from central Louisiana into western Tennessee and Kentucky, as well as southeastern Missouri — look for total rainfall of 2 to 4 inches with isolated totals of 6 inches. This rainfall will cause widespread flash flooding and urban flooding, small streams to overflow their banks and minor to isolated moderate river flooding.

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