By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS, Sept 4 : Tropical Storm Gordon began lashing the U.S. Gulf Coast with high winds on Tuesday, strengthening as it swirled toward the coast carrying heavy rains and threatening to make landfall as a hurricane.
Gordon was forecast to come ashore near Pascagoula, Mississippi in the coming hours as a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.
It would be the first hurricane to make landfall in the continental United States this season. Hurricane and storm surge warnings were in effect for Pascagoula.
Though the Louisiana coast remained calm as of early Tuesday evening, Governor John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency and companies cut 9 percent of U.S. Gulf of Mexico oil and gas production.
“I’m asking all residents to do their part in getting ready for this storm,” New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a statement. “The city’s absolute No.1 priority is to ensure the safety of our residents.” Tropical-storm force winds were already lashing the Alabama and western Florida panhandle coastlines and were predicted to reach hurricane force of at least 74 mph (119 kph) by the time storm makes landfall. Some areas still recovering from last year’s storms could see 12 inches (30 cm) of rain.
Beaches around Mobile, Alabama were being washed by storm-driven waves on Tuesday morning, said Stephen Miller, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.
“We’re expecting an increase in winds,” Miller said in a telephone interview. “We could see flooding.” The storm was producing gusty winds and heavy rain along the coast of the western Florida Panhandle and along the Texas coast, the National Hurricane Center said in an afternoon advisory.
Sea levels could rise as much as 5 feet (1.5 m) from Shell Beach, Louisiana, to Dauphin Island, Alabama, forecasters said.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency told South Mississippi residents to be prepared to evacuate.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Gordon was 95 miles (153 km) southeast of Biloxi, Mississippi, and heading west-northwest, according to the National Hurricane Center.
At LaFrance Marina near Ansley, Mississippi, a mile north of Heron Bay on the Gulf of Mexico, marina owner Sue Cates said that a tidal surge is sure to push water into the marina’s low-lying campgrounds, making evacuation “the only choice” people have to protect themselves.
Nevertheless, she said she and her husband will remain in their home, which sits on tall pilings, 24 feet above ground. Built after Hurricane Katrina, the home is made to withstand a 150 mile-an-hour wind, she said.
“We’re way up here, and I think we’ll be OK,” Cates said. “People around here are well-trained for this sort of thing.” U.S. oil producer Anadarko Petroleum Corp evacuated workers and shut production at two offshore oil platforms on Monday, and other companies with production and refining operations along the Gulf Coast said they were securing facilities.
The Gulf of Mexico is home to 17 percent of U.S. crude oil and 5 percent of natural gas output daily, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The U.S. Coast Guard said the ports of New Orleans and Gulfport and Pascagoula, Mississippi, may have to close within 48 hours.
Last year, hurricanes hit Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, causing widespread destruction and thousands of deaths.
The Inn at Ocean Springs and the Roost Hotel in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, had guests planning to ride out the storm, said Kristin Smith, general manager of both hotels.
“A lot of guests are real comfortable sticking it out in our rooms,” Smith said in a telephone interview. “Any of our guests who feel like they want to go home we encourage them to follow their instincts.”