Tropical Storm Edouard heads for Texas-La. coast

August 4, 2008 6:07:39 PM PDT
Beth Bronson said Monday she's determined not to have her trip ruined as the second severe storm in two weeks approached a Texas Gulf Coast vacation hotspot at the height of tourist season.

Tropical Storm Edouard was expected to come ashore Tuesday morning anywhere from western Louisiana to Port O'Connor, Texas.

But tourism officials in Galveston said many vacationers were planning to stay, hoping the area isn't hit as hard as South Padre Island was by Hurricane Dolly on July 23.

"We spend money to come here with our families. It's an inexpensive place to stay. If they were to say evacuate, then yeah we would do it. But otherwise no," said Bronson, 49, who was vacationing from Allen.

Still, officials in Texas and Louisiana were busy Monday preparing just in case Edouard intensified. It could reach near-hurricane strength as it churns in the warm Gulf of Mexico waters before making landfall.

Gov. Rick Perry issued a disaster declaration for 17 Texas counties that could be in Edouard's path. The state activated a number of emergency teams, including calling up 1,200 Texas military forces and six UH-60 helicopters, the State Operations Center said.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a statewide emergency.

Cameron Parish told up to 3,000 residents to evacuate low-lying coastal areas that are prone to flooding. Vermilion Parish, also in western Louisiana, advised people in mobile homes or FEMA trailers along the coast to leave.

For vacationers, the timing of the storm couldn't be worse: The Texas coast banks on tourism at this time of year, with much of the state baking in 100-degree weather. About 50 million visitors to the Texas coast spent about $15 billion in 2006.

Since Dolly, South Padre has regained electric power but its four biggest full-service hotels remain closed as well as the convention center in the community about 260 miles down the coast from Galveston. Dolly hit the coast with winds up to 100 mph, tearing off roofs and knocking down signs on the island.

At 8 p.m. EDT, Edouard had maximum sustained winds near 45 mph, with higher gusts. The storm's center was located about 125 miles south-southeast of Lafayette, La., and 205 miles east-southeast of Galveston, Texas.

The storm was moving west near 7 mph, and forecasters said conditions were in place for the storm to intensify and approach hurricane strength with winds of 74 mph or more.

"This is not the time of year for anyone along the Texas coast to be interrupted by these storms," said Dan Quandt, executive director of the South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Forecasters say Edouard's center could make landfall near Galveston, which is in the peak of its tourist season, when the city's population of about 60,000 doubles. No evacuations were ordered and local officials in the storm-seasoned town were merely urging caution.

About 50 miles northwest, Houston officials asked residents to safely store large, heavy items outside their homes to prevent possible flying debris.

Galveston was hoping its successful tourist season wouldn't be derailed. Hotel occupancy rates and sales tax figures this summer are 10 to 15 percent higher than last year, the city's best for tourist-related income.

"Edouard is not going to have that large of an affect on tourism because it's not expected to cause (severe) damage," said Roshelle Gaskins, spokeswoman for the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. She added a lot of tourists were staying.

Oil and gas companies in the Gulf evacuated workers from 23 production platforms and six rigs, according to the U.S. Minerals Management Service. The service said there are 717 manned platforms and 125 operating rigs in the Gulf.

Edouard is not likely to disrupt production, according to one financial firm that specializes in the energy industry. "He'll just be (a) little tropical storm tike compared to big mammas that rip things up and spike gas prices," the Houston-based securities firm Tudor Pickering Holt & Co. said in a note to investors Monday.

Shell Oil Co. said Monday it evacuated 43 workers from some of its operations in the western Gulf. The company said no further evacuations were currently planned and it expected no impact on production.

Exxon Mobil Corp. said Monday afternoon it was preparing platforms and other structures for heavy wind and rain. But the company said no evacuations had taken place and production had not been affected.

A tropical storm warning was in effect from the mouth of the Mississippi River westward to Port O'Connor in Texas. A hurricane watch was in effect from west of Intracoastal City, La. to Port O'Connor.