As officials and residents in Texas braced for a strike from Tropical Storm Alex’s most ferocious side, energy companies worked to evacuate offshore rigs.
The storm, with maximum sustained winds of 70 miles (110 kilometers) per hour, was 320 miles southeast of Brownsville, Texas, heading northwest at 13 mph, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said just before 1 p.m. Houston time.
“Strengthening is forecast during the next 36 hours or so before landfall and Alex is likely to become a hurricane later today,” the center said in the advisory.
Brownsville began giving residents sandbags last night. Texas Governor Rick Perry declared 19 counties a disaster area to free up resources and activated 2,500 National Guard troops, eight helicopters and three C-130 transport planes in advance of the season’s first storm.
The hurricane center tracks show the center of the storm passing just south of Brownsville tomorrow night, meaning the Texas city of 172,437 will be struck by the Alex’s most powerful quadrant, according to the hurricane center. Hurricane warnings have been issued from Baffin Bay in Texas to La Cruz in Mexico.
Chance to Intensify
Alex is passing over a warm eddy of water in the Gulf and will have its best chance of intensifying in the next few hours, said Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“It is probably going to intensify into a Category 2 hurricane,” Masters said by telephone. “It could weaken right before landfall, though.”
Masters said a combination of dry air over land, air pollution near the coast and possibly layers of cooler water could all conspire to weaken Alex. A Category 2 storm has winds of at least 96 mph on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.
Alex is expected to drop as much as 12 inches of rain in northeastern Mexico and southern Texas as it makes landfall, according to the hurricane center. Some locations may receive as much as 20 inches of rain. In addition, a storm surge of about 5 feet is possible along the coast.
“The surge could penetrate inland as far as several miles from the shore with the depth decreasing as the water moves inland,” the advisory said.
Padre Island Prepares
On South Padre Island, 28 miles northeast of Brownsville, officials have cleared beaches of signs, trash cans and any other items that can turn into projectiles, said Dan Quandt, city spokesman.
“There is no mandatory evacuation on the island,” Quandt said by telephone. “We are looking at some significant storm surge coming in. We may have around five feet or so which won’t be coming into the island proper.”
The Gulf Coast is home to 43 percent of operable U.S. refining capacity, according to the Energy Department. Gulf Coast refiners in August and September 2008 lost about 20 percent of daily production capacity due to hurricanes Ike and Gustav.
Valero Energy Corp., the largest U.S. refiner, has three South Texas refineries that could be disrupted by the storm or inland flooding, said Bill Day, a spokesman for the company. Valero has set aside emergency water, food and first-aid supplies for those refineries at a distribution center for its retail stores near its San Antonio headquarters.
‘Flooding a Concern’
“We have contracts with companies that can provide enough power to run a refinery with generators,” he said. Valero’s two Corpus Christi refineries are about 160 miles north of Brownsville, one of the places where the storm could make landfall. Another refinery in Three Rivers is about 70 miles northwest of Corpus Christi.
“Refining units themselves are built to withstand heavy winds, but flooding can be a concern,” Day said. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, “we moved a lot of our electrical equipment higher. A refinery can weather a storm but it won’t be able to operate if it doesn’t have electricity.”
The storm’s track keeps it away from a direct hit on an oil slick from the damaged BP well. However, Alex’s circulation is so large it will raise tides along the Louisiana coast about two to three feet above normal tomorrow, Masters said.
“I am concerned about the oil slick,” Masters said. “That oil is going to be pushed much farther inland than usual.”
Large Ocean Swells
Large ocean swells are already making their way toward the oil spill, said Brian LaMarre, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Slidell, Louisiana.
BP needs about three more days to connect a new cap that will feed crude from the leaking Macondo well to the Helix Producer, a vessel that can add 20,000 to 25,000 barrels a day to the London-based company’s current containment capacity, said Kent Wells, senior vice president.
As the work can be completed only in flat seas, Alex could cause a seven-day delay in connecting the Helix, he said. The work was to be completed by July 7, he said yesterday.
Skimming and burning operations were stopped today after thunderstorms and rough seas invaded the area, said Chuck Wolf, spokesman for the Deepwater Horizon joint information center in New Orleans. Work on the relief well is still going on, he said.
LaMarre said the rough seas are a result of Alex.
“It is not directly because of Alex, but if Alex wasn’t in the Gulf we wouldn’t have all this deep tropical moisture,” LaMarre said by telephone. “What we’re seeing here is just an enormous amount of tropical moisture associated with Alex.”
Crude Oil Declines
Crude oil fell for a second day in New York on speculation the storm will bypass the main producing areas of the Gulf of Mexico and reach land in Mexico. Oil for August delivery fell $2.31, or 3 percent, to settle at $75.94 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The Gulf of Mexico is home to about 30 percent of U.S. oil, 12 percent of its natural gas production and has seven of the 10 busiest U.S. ports.
BP and Royal Dutch Shell Plc, the biggest oil producers in the Gulf, are evacuating hundreds of workers from platforms in the western and central Gulf as a safety precaution.
Shell said about 900 workers had been evacuated as of 11 a.m. in Houston and 630 remain offshore. “Production from our East assets will be evaluated as the storm progresses,” it said on its website.
Exxon Mobil Corp. is also evacuating workers from offshore platforms and said that 8,000 barrels of daily oil gross output and 123 million cubic feet of gas has been shut in, according to an e-mailed statement.
ConocoPhillips evacuated the Magnolia platform, which in 2009 averaged 10,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, the company said today on its website.
Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and Apache Corp. said they are evacuating non-essential workers.
Williams Partners LP expects reduced processing at its Markham natural gas plant in Texas later today because some offshore gas producers have shut output, Jeff Pounds, a company spokesman, said in a telephone interview.
“Despite some temporary shut-ins across the western Gulf and some delays in shipping traffic, Alex does not represent a destructive hazard to a large portion of the energy production region,” said Jim Rouiller, senior energy meteorologist for Planalytics Inc.
The storm is being blamed for at least 13 deaths in Central America.