By Stephanie Kelly
LAKE CHARLES, La. (Reuters) - Hurricane Delta weakened steadily on Friday after churning into a corner of southwestern Louisiana repeatedly battered by storms this year, sending residents scurrying out of harm's way and disrupting Gulf Coast energy production.
Delta made landfall as a Category 2 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale, packing maximum sustained winds of 100 miles per hour (161 kph), at 6 p.m. on Friday near the town of Creole, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) reported.
Within hours, its sustained winds had diminished to 75 mph (120 kph) and it was on the verge of being downgraded from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm.
The center of Delta was on track to drift across central and northeastern Louisiana on Friday night and Saturday morning before moving into northern Mississippi and the Tennessee Valley, the NHC said.
"Rapid weakening is expected overnight and Saturday. Delta is forecast to weaken to a tropical storm tonight and to a tropical depression on Saturday," the NHC said.
Streets were deserted in the nearby city of Lake Charles as residents fled, filling hotels or taking shelter away from the path of the Delta, which struck weeks after Hurricane Laura plowed ashore as a Category 3 storm in late August.
"In this community, there are a lot of homes that were damaged (by Laura), and so a lot of people are concerned about staying in that structure again," Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter said in an interview.
Laura, which came ashore with 150-mph (241-kph) winds, "is still very fresh and very raw and I think that had something to do with more people evacuating for Delta," Hunter added.
Schools and government offices were closed and officials in a dozen parishes called for evacuations. Residents boarded up windows, sandbagged doors and moved out of the storm's path.
Energy companies cut back petroleum production in the Gulf of Mexico by about 92%, or 1.7 million barrels per day, by Friday midday, the most since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed more than 100 offshore platforms and hobbled output for months.
The U.S. Coast Guard closed ports along the Gulf Coast from Beaumont, Texas, to Lake Charles ahead of the storm.
SETS STORM RECORD
Delta was the 10th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season to make a U.S. landfall this year, eclipsing a record dating to 1916.
Laura damaged tens of thousands of homes, leaving roofs across the region dotted with protective blue tarpaulins and more than 6,000 people living temporarily in hotels.
Floria Semien, 62, and her family took shelter in a hotel after leaving their home near Lake Charles two days after its electric power was restored following Laura.
"It's heartbreaking," she said. "My family made it out OK, so we just are going to put one foot in front of the other."
Along a pasture east of Lake Charles, Addison Alford manned a mobile weather radar station brought in from Oklahoma on Thursday because the permanent station was damaged during Laura.
He and a colleague planned to ride out the storm from inside a heavy vehicle equipped with a radar dish. "We're really trying to make sure the datastreams stay up during the entire event," he said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Kelly in Baton Rouge; Writing and additional reporting by Gary McWilliams in Houston; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Clarence Fernandez)