Hurricane Harvey strengthens, threatens U.S. with most powerful storm in 12 years

A Gulf of Mexico storm rapidly intensified early on Friday spinning into potentially the biggest hurricane to hit the mainland United States in 12 years, taking aim at the heart of nation’s oil refining industry.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said in an updated forecast Friday morning that “preparations along the middle Texas coast should be rushed to completion this morning” as conditions are expected to deteriorate. 

As of Friday morning, the storm was about 225 kilometres southeast of Corpus Christi, with winds hitting 175 km/h.

On its current track, Harvey is expected to made landfall on the middle Texas coast Friday night or early Saturday morning.

“Harvey is then likely to meander near or just inland of the middle Texas coast through the weekend,” the hurricane centre said.

The storm could bring a surge in sea levels as high as 3.7 metres and dump up to 97 cm of rain over parts of Texas.

“Now is the time to urgently hide from the wind. Failure to adequately shelter may result in serious injury, loss of life, or immense human suffering,” the U.S. National Weather Service said.

Flood warnings are in effect for northern Mexico and Louisiana. The threat has triggered evacuations and cancelled the first day of school in communities along the south Texas coast, which is home to 5.8 million people from Corpus Christi to Galveston.

“Life-threatening and devastating flooding expected near the coast due to heavy rainfall and storm surge,” the hurricane centre said.

All seven counties on the coast from Corpus Christi to the western end of Galveston Island have ordered mandatory evacuations of tens of thousands of residents from all low-lying areas.

In four of those counties, officials ordered their entire county evacuated and warned those who stayed behind that no one could be guaranteed rescue.

Hurricane Harvey

People are stocking up as more counties along the Texas Gulf coast order mandatory evacuations. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Voluntary evacuations have been urged for Corpus Christi itself and for the Bolivar Peninsula, a sand spit near Galveston where many homes were washed away by the storm surge of Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Energy companies shut coastal refineries, pulled workers from Gulf of Mexico offshore oil platforms and halted onshore drilling in south Texas on Thursday. Just under 10 per cent of offshore U.S. Gulf of Mexico crude output capacity and nearly 15 per cent of natural gas production was halted by midday, government data showed.

Harvey is forecast to come ashore as a Category 3 hurricane, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said, which would make it the first major hurricane to hit the mainland U.S. since Hurricane Wilma struck Florida in 2005.

Superstorm Sandy, which pummeled New York and New Jersey in 2012, never had the high winds and had lost tropical status by the time it struck. But it was devastating without formally being called a major hurricane.

“We’re forecasting continuing intensification right up until landfall,” National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.

Hurricane Harvey

Texas officials expressed concern that not as many people are evacuating compared with previous storms.

“A lot of people are taking this storm for granted thinking it may not pose much of a danger to them,” Gov. Greg Abbott told Houston television station KPRC.

“Please heed warnings and evacuate as soon as possible.”

Abbott has activated about 700 members of the state National Guard ahead of Hurricane Harvey making landfall.

Tropical Weather

Caesar Mendez and his daughter Catalina wait inside the Corpus Christi Natatorium to board a bus to evacuate to San Antonio ahead of Hurricane Harvey on Thursday in the Texas city. (Courtney Sacco/Corpus Christi Caller-Times/Associated Press)

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