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Hurricane Marco Closes In As Gulf Coast Region Braces For Historic Double Strike

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NOAA
Hurricane Marco

Hurricane Marco, now a Category 1 storm, closed in on the U.S. Gulf Coast on Sunday, and coastal communities from Matagorda Bay in Texas to Mobile Bay in Alabama braced for potentially deadly storm surge, flooding rains and destructive winds. Forecasters warned that Marco could make landfall in Louisiana on Monday.

It could then weaken into a tropical storm and move into East Texas as a tropical depression on Tuesday.

In the Caribbean, Tropical Storm Laura lashed Hispaniola and Cuba through the weekend, and it may join Marco in the Gulf by Monday night. Forecasters warned it too could grow into a hurricane that may threaten Louisiana by Wednesday, only days after Marco's arrival.

By late Sunday morning, the National Hurricane Center included the northeastern Texas Gulf Coast, including Houston, among the areas where Laura might make landfall, or when its eye crosses from water onto land. It could still be a hurricane at that point.

The extent of the danger both storms posed to Texas reached as far as San Antonio on Sunday. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Sunday afternoon that he issued a state disaster declaration for 23 counties, including Bexar County. The declaration would aid staging and sheltering efforts. Abbott also asked President Donald Trump to declare the designated counties federal emergency areas.

During a press conference, Abbott also reminded citizens to keep in mind the ongoing need to protect against the spread of COVID-19 during the emergency.

"As we respond to these oncoming hurricanes, it is essential that everybody in every community continue to do everything that you can to maintain your distance from others, to remember the safety practices that you have adopted over the past few months," he said.

The governor said the Texas Division of Emergency Management has activated the Alamo Regional Command Center. The department is prepared to shelter as many as 5,000 evacuees from the storms if necessary. Several other state agencies are also being prepared to deploy.

An earlier statement from the governor's office on Friday explained that preparations by the Texas Division Of Emergency Management could include resources and personnel from several civilian and military entities, including the Texas A&M Forest Service, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas Military Department and Texas Department of Public Safety.

The bizarre, dramatic possibility of two hurricanes striking the same stretch of coastline sparked memes, dark humor and wry comments about 2020 on social media throughout the weekend. Also, one historian noted the storms would strike less than a week before the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

But forecasters emphasized that their storm tracks — these "cones of uncertainty" — were only educated guesses, at best. "Do not focus of the exact forecast track as average forecast errors are quite large this far out," read one tweet from the National Weather Service Austin/San Antonio office.

"Still a great deal of uncertainty with the path and strength," another advisory stressed.

On Sunday, the National Hurricane Center reported Marco was in the central Gulf of Mexico, about 200 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River. It was moving north-northwest at 14 mph. The Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft dispatched to evaluate the storm measured sustained winds of 75 mph.

Most communities between Texas and Florida faced the threats of storm surge of at least two feet, dangerous surf, severe winds, at least two inches of rain, the risk of flash flooding and even tornadoes.

NPR reported Saturday that Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards appreciated the unique danger his state may face in the coming days. "This is the very first time in history that we've had two storms forecasted to hit at the same time in the Gulf Coast," he said. The state issued a state of emergency.

Crews on oil and gas rigs in the Gulf have been evacuated, NPR added. Also, Alabama's governor explained elections set for Tuesday may have to be delayed because of the storms. Mississippi's governor also issued a state of emergency.

Houston Public Media reported Saturday that Galveston County officials were not planning major evacuations, and ferry service would continue. County Judge Mark Henry said state officials had promised 100 buses for Galveston County, HPM reported, which would help any evacuation operation observe necessary COVID-19 social distancing requirements in the buses.

On Sunday, Tropical Storm Laura tormented Hispaniola and Cuba with severe winds and rain. It was about 80 miles southeast of Guantanamo, Cuba. It moved west-northwest at 21 mph. The Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft sent to evaluate the storm measured sustained winds of 50 mph.

"On the forecast track, the center of Laura will move near or over Cuba tonight and Monday, and move over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico Monday night and Tuesday," forecasters explained. "Laura is expected to move over the central and northwestern Gulf of Mexico Tuesday night and Wednesday. "

If Laura's sustained winds exceed 74 mph, it will be classified as a Category 1 hurricane.

Forecasters roughly estimated landfall somewhere in Louisiana sometime on Wednesday.

The emergence of both storms initially sparked curiosity in some observers, especially at first when it appeared both storms might make landfall simultaneously. But that scenario grew increasingly unlikely given the current progress of both storms, with Marco likely to make landfall first. Nevertheless, some people wondered what might've happened if the storms moved closer to each other ... or perhaps combined to become a larger storm.

The horror movie idea was not a fantastical one. The National Weather Service explained that two storms can theoretically come close enough to affect each other, push each other away or the stronger one could absorb the weaker one. Weather scientists described it as the Fujiwhara Effect, named for Sakuhei Fujiwhara, the director of a weather observatory in Japan who researched it.

"Two storms closer in strength can gravitate towards each other until they reach a common point and merge, or merely spin each other around for a while before shooting off on their own paths," the NWS added. "In rare occasions, the effect is additive when the hurricanes come together, resulting in one larger storm instead of two smaller ones."

However, forecasters emphasized that such an occurrence would be extremely rare and that it was still too early to predict anything about the storms beyond their general tracks through Tuesday.

NPR noted that the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season has seen "named storms forming at a pace never seen before." One weather expert estimated that 2020 has seen 30 named storm days by Aug. 22, a record exceeded only by the 1995, 2005 and 2008 storm seasons.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently warned that this year's season could see twice the normal number of named storms.

The remaining names from 2020's list of "Tropical Cyclone Names" are Nana, Omar, Paulette, Rene, Sally, Teddy, Vicky, Wilfred. If that list is exhausted, the NHC explained, "additional storms will take names from the Greek alphabet."

The latest set of storms developed just as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explained how its modern fleets of satellites have improved hurricane forecasting.

The Joint Polar Satellite System views the entire Earth both during the day and the night, and it measures sea and air conditions to help predict a hurricane’s path. Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) constantly watch the Western Hemisphere for hurricane development. They send back information on hurricane wind speeds and lightning activity, which reveal their intensity.

NOAA hurricane researcher Jason Dunion said they can predict paths and see into hurricanes better than ever before. “These different satellite platforms are giving us about twice the image resolution that we used to get," he explained. "Think about going from a low definition TV to an HDTV.”

Dunion said forecasting offices can quickly interpret the data. “We’re actually taking that data and delivering it to the forecast centers and to the modeling centers," he said, "so the models are ingesting all of this satellite information to really improve the forecasts and protect lives and property. That’s really what it’s all about."

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