Texas directly in path of year’s first major hurricane: 5 things to know

The outer bands of Hurricane Beryl — the earliest major hurricane on record — are on track to hit Texas Sunday morning.

“This is a determined storm that is still strong,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) said Friday afternoon.

“Now would be the time to prepare,” the National Weather Service’s (NWS) Corpus Christi branch wrote on the social platform X Friday morning.

The hurricane, which has already killed nearly a dozen people in Mexico and the Caribbean and left more than half of Jamaicans without electricity, represents a harbinger of an active storm season to come — and of the emergence of a more dangerous world.

For Texas, it also reflects the rising long-term threat to the state’s coast, where warming seas and increasingly powerful hurricanes meet a historic buildout in the petrochemical industry.

But even with Beryl hundreds of miles offshore, a more immediate danger is already here, according to the NWS.

Here’s what you should know about the first big storm of the season.

When will Hurricane Beryl reach Texas?

The NWS expects outer winds to hit Texas Sunday morning, with the hurricane itself making landfall Sunday night or early Monday morning — by which point winds may lash interior cities like San Antonio, Victoria or Austin.

But the impacts of those winds already pose a threat to the state. While the Category 2 storm churns over Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, hundreds of miles east of the U.S. coast, its powerful winds are already shoving ocean waters against a Texas coast crowded with holiday weekend vacationers.

Crammed in with nowhere to go, that water can spill forth in narrow, powerful “rip currents” that can yank swimmers away from the beach — a phenomenon that has killed 19 Americans this year so far.

On Friday, days before the storm’s expected arrival, the NWS in Corpus Christi warned of “dangerous swimming conditions” throughout the holiday weekend — a reflection of the size and power of the coming storm.

Much of the danger of the rip current lies in its subtlety: Most deaths “occur on a nice weekend,” one federal expert told National Geographic.

“If you see a dark gap heading offshore through the surf that is persistent in time and space, that’s probably a rip current,” Rob Brander of the University of New South Wales told the magazine.

By Sunday evening, however, that risk will no longer be subtle.

How big a risk does the storm pose?

It could be significant.

The hurricane has weakened to a still-formidable Category 1, and its destructive passage over Mexico diminishes its power. But the storm is expected to cross back into the Gulf late Friday afternoon, where the warm water will renew its strength.

That means that by Sunday, the Texas coast can expect a 10 foot to 13 foot storm surge coupled with heavy rains, which will intensify throughout Monday.

Forecasters expect the hurricane itself to make landfall late Sunday evening or early Monday morning somewhere between the small northern Mexican town of Carboneras, Tamaulipas, and the vast petrochemical complexes of Port Arthur and Beaumont, Texas.

The center of that cone of uncertainty lies about 50 miles north of the Texas-Mexico combined metropolis of Brownsville and Matamoros.

But regardless of where it hits, from there the storm only has one destination: deeper into Texas. By Wednesday morning, it will be crossing into the state’s northern reaches — potentially bringing downpours to Central Texas cities like Austin and San Antonio.

Virtually all of these coastal cities in the hurricane’s potential path, from Brownsville to Corpus and particularly the region from Houston to Louisiana, are major hubs of petrochemical manufacture and petroleum refining — an industry at dramatic risk from hurricanes.

In 2017, damage to Houston-area petrochemical infrastructure by Hurricane Harvey caused the release of more than a million pounds of toxic vapors, and hurricane floodwaters risk ripping open buried pipelines.

Why is Hurricane Beryl unusual?

It’s uncommonly strong and uncomfortably early. When Beryl strengthened into a Category 4 hurricane on June 28, it broke the record for earliest-ever major hurricane in the Atlantic by a week. The previous record holder, 2005’s Hurricane Dennis, formed in the region on July 5.

“Beryl’s early development is remarkable,” Matthew Rosencrans of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told Climate.gov.

Why? Because ocean heat is hurricane fuel, major storms in the area where Beryl was born, out in the cold waters beyond the Lesser Antilles, usually only form once the ocean gets hot enough, which generally takes until August or September

Also in that region, wind shear — stark differences between wind speed and direction at different heights — tends to disrupt the process by which hurricanes form.

But both of those brakes on early-season formation are broken this year.

First, there is an acute cause. The emerging La Niña cycle tamps down the Atlantic trade winds that can fuel wind shear. This broad climate cycle is building on a longer term one: the heating of the ocean over the past century due largely to the human burning of fossil fuels.

Second, there is a chronic cause. The broken remnants of burned fossil fuels — molecules like carbon dioxide — trap solar heat in the atmosphere, and about about 90 percent of that heat ultimately makes it into the ocean, according to NASA.

To put that in context, each year the oceans absorb the equivalent of more than 12 times the total energy currently used by all of human civilization.

That heat has meant steadily rising ocean temperatures over the past 75 years. For the past year, the North Atlantic has been experiencing a record heatwave, which helped power an above-normal 2023 hurricane season — and which now has ocean temperatures at something like the levels normally seen in September, perfect for hurricane formation.

Does that mean it’s going to be a busy hurricane season?

Not necessarily: Early hurricanes don’t define busy hurricane seasons, Rosencrans of NOAA told Climate.gov.

“Busy seasons can be busy just because the core of the season is busy,” he said.

That said, 2005 — the year of Hurricane Dennis, the previous earliest hurricane on record — was a then-record-breaking hurricane season, with its 28 named storms smashing by a third the previous record set back in 1933.

Two of those storms, the one-two punch of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on New Orleans and Houston, killed 2,000 people and did more than $150 billion in property damage. The seven major hurricanes that year were only matched in 2020, and have never been exceeded.

That example isn’t necessarily predictive. “Past is, of course, not necessarily prologue when it comes to the hurricanes of the future,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad told reporters in May.

But Spinrad added that “the forecast for named storms, hurricanes, and major hurricanes is the highest NOAA has ever issued for the May outlook.”

Between four and seven of those storms are expected to become Category 3 through 5 hurricanes, with wind speeds of at least 111 miles per hour.

This is the sort of risk that must be confronted well before danger develops, Spinrad emphasized. “It only takes one storm to devastate a community, and it’s prudent to prepare now because once the storm is headed your way, it all happens so rapidly you won’t have the time to plan and prepare at that point.”

What is Texas doing to reduce risk?

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Friday escalated the state’s emergency readiness level and empowered state agencies to “deploy all available emergency response resources” to communities in the path of the storm.”

That means the mobilization of National Guard units, state troopers, highway maintenance crews and search and rescue teams, including “boat squads.”

Patrick, Texas’s lieutenant governor, issued a preemptive disaster declaration on Friday for 39 Texas counties, allowing them to pass specific emergency regulations. Some counties issued evacuation orders, and state oil companies were evacuating crews from rigs, according to The Associated Press.

But over the long term, Texas’s state policies will likely only increase risk. The state has banned insurance companies that weigh the risks of climate change and has subsidized a record buildout of 33 new coastal petrochemical plants.

The state is also backing growth in an industry that is contributing significantly to the heating of the oceans and thereby fueling the rise in hurricanes. State regulators are approving an expansion in pipelines that will connect the state’s booming — and highly polluting — Western oil and gas fields to foreign markets.

The fossil fuel industry and conservative lawmakers have argued gas exports promote security by providing fuel to U.S. allies and help keep domestic energy prices down. The industry — along with some Democrats, including former President Obama and, to a large extent, Biden — has also touted gas as a more climate-friendly alternative to other fossil fuels.

These drilling projects, however, are known to vent hundreds of thousands of pounds of planet-heating methane into the atmosphere, more than half of which is produced for consumers far beyond Texas. To get to foreign markets, those products must largely be transported to the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast, where 15 export terminals have already been approved by federal regulators. Still more await the results of a Biden administration audit of whether they are in the national interest — though even an official decision that they are not would still allow projects that will ship to the 20 countries with which the U.S. has a free trade agreement.

In Houston, the state, local and federal governments are collaborating on a nearly $60 billion, 20-year project to fortify the refinery-dense Houston Ship Channel with coastal barriers, seawalls, levees and gates.

Private gas export facilities are building their own fortifications, often on the very spot once occupied by wetlands that blocked winds and absorbed floodwaters — a dynamic that “makes the region, and the projects themselves, more vulnerable,” The Washington Post reported.

Such construction “highlights the irony that they’re having to armor these facilities at considerable expense to guard against extreme weather that is their own doing,” Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy organization, told the Post.

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