World

2 tropical storms pose potential double threat to U.S. Gulf Coast

Two tropical storms advanced across the Caribbean on Saturday as potentially historic threats to the U.S. Gulf Coast, one dumping rain on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, while the other was pushing through the gap between Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba.

Laura, Marco both projected to approach Louisiana 2 days apart next week

A flooded area and a downed tree caused by tropical storm Laura are seen in Salinas, Puerto Rico, on Saturday. (Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images)

Two tropical storms advanced across the Caribbean on Saturday as potentially historic threats to the U.S. Gulf Coast, one dumping rain on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, while the other was pushing through the gap between Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba.

Tropical storms Laura and Marco were both projected to approach Louisiana at or close to hurricane force just two days apart next week.

Two hurricanes have never appeared in the Gulf of Mexico at the same time, according to records going back to at least 1900, said Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach. The last time two tropical storms were in the Gulf together was in 1959, he said.

The last time two storms made landfall in the United States within 24 hours of each other was in 1933, Klotzbach said.

The projected tracks from the U.S. National Hurricane Center on Saturday afternoon pointed to both storms being together in the Gulf on Monday, with Marco hitting Louisiana and Laura making landfall in the same general area Wednesday. But large uncertainties remain for that time span, and forecasts for the two storms have varied greatly so far.

Tropical storm Laura is seen in the North Atlantic Ocean on Friday. (NOAA via The Associated Press)

"We are in unprecedented times," Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said at a news conference Saturday as he declared a state of emergency. "We are dealing with not only two potential storms in the next few hours, we are also dealing with COVID-19."

He urged residents to prepare for the storms and, if possible, find places to evacuate that are not public shelters. A hurricane watch was issued for Intracoastal City, La., eastward to the Mississippi-Alabama border.

Islands battered

Laura flung rain across Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic on Saturday and was expected to drench Haiti and parts of Cuba through Sunday on its westward course.

Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vazquez declared a state of emergency and warned that flooding could be worse than what tropical storm Isaias unleashed three weeks ago because the ground is now saturated. Power outages were also reported across the U.S. territory.

"No one should be out on the streets," she said.

Heavy winds and rain from Laura rip the tin roof of a house in Guayama, Puerto Rico, on Saturday. (Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images)

The storm was centred about 200 kilometres east-southeast of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, late Saturday afternoon, with maximum sustained winds of 85 km/h. It was moving west at 30 km/h.

Officials said they were most concerned about the thousands of people who still have been living under blue tarps since 2017's Hurricane Maria and the hundreds of families living along Puerto Rico's southern coast in homes damaged by a string of strong earthquakes this year.

Marco, meanwhile, was strengthening while centred about 85 kilometres west of Cuba's western tip, headed to the north-northwest at 20 km/h. It had maximum sustained winds of 100 km/h and was expected to become a hurricane later Saturday.

Carlos Joaquin Gonzalez, governor of Mexico's Quintana Roo state, celebrated that Marco's changed trajectory spared his state's beaches, including those in Cancun, the country's top tourist destination.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said it expected the storms to stay far enough apart to prevent direct interaction as the region braces for the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, which is forecast to be unusually active.

Both storms were expected to bring eight to 15 centimetres of rain to areas they were passing over or near, threatening widespread flooding across a vast region.

"A lot of people are going to be impacted by rainfall and storm surge in the Gulf of Mexico," said Joel Cline, the tropical program co-ordinator for the National Weather Service. "Since you simply don't know, you really need to make precautions."

Officials wary

It seems fitting for such an unusual twin threat to arrive in 2020, said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.

"Of course, we have to have two simultaneously land-falling hurricanes," McNoldy said. "It's best not to ask what's next."

Forecasters said that while atmospheric conditions are favourable for Laura to grow, its passage over Puerto Rico and the mountains of Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba could tear it apart or weaken it before it enters warm Gulf waters conducive to growth.

WATCH | 2020 could be near-record hurricane season:

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Officials in the Florida Keys, which Laura might pass over on its route into the Gulf, declared a local state of emergency on Friday and issued a mandatory evacuation order for anyone living on boats, in mobile homes and in campers. Tourists staying in hotels should be aware of hazardous weather conditions and consider altering their plans starting on Sunday, Monroe County officials said in a news release.

Citing both storm systems, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency Friday night. "It is too soon to know exactly where, when or how these dual storms will affect Louisiana, but now is the time for our people to prepare for these storms," he said in a statement.

Laura had earlier forced the closure of schools and government offices in the eastern Caribbean islands of Anguilla and Antigua, according to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency.

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