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HOUSTON (REUTERS) – Heavy rains fell across the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana on Tuesday (Sept 14) as tropical storm Nicholas strengthened into a hurricane and spun toward land, bringing the threat of widespread flooding, power outages and storm surges.
Nicholas was some 30km south-east of Matagorda, Texas, as of 10pm central time, heading north-east with maximum sustained winds of 120kmh, the National Hurricane Centre said in a bulletin on Monday night.
US President Joe Biden declared an emergency for Louisiana and ordered federal assistance to supplement local response efforts due to conditions resulting from Nicholas, the White House said.
“It will be a very slow-moving storm across the state of Texas that will linger for several days and drop a tremendous amount of rain,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said.
Mr Abbott declared states of emergency in 17 counties and three cities.
He said boat and helicopter rescue teams have been deployed or placed on standby.
Nicholas is the second hurricane in recent weeks to threaten the US Gulf Coast.
Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc in August, killing more than two dozen people and devastating communities in Louisiana near New Orleans.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, citing flood warnings, urged the city’s roughly 2.3 million residents to stay off streets and highways.
“Take things seriously and prepare,” Mr Turner said at a news conference.
“This is primarily a rain event and we don’t know how much rain we will be getting.”
The Houston Independent School District cancelled classes for Tuesday, while dozens of schools across Texas and Louisiana shut down on Monday.
Houston suspended light rail and bus services on Monday evening. Hundreds of flights were cancelled or delayed at airports in Corpus Christi and Houston.
Houston, the fourth-most populous US city, was devastated in 2017 when Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane, slammed Texas, dropping up to 102cm of rain in some sections and killing more than 100 people.
National Weather Service models forecast rainfall totals from Nicholas up to 40.6cm for coastal parts of Texas, reaching 50.8cm in some isolated areas.
As the storm moves north-east, it was expected to pummel parts of south central Louisiana and southern Mississippi with up to 25.4cm of rain.
The National Weather Service issued storm surge, flood and tropical storm warnings and watches throughout the region, calling it a “life-threatening situation”.
“We want to make sure that no one is caught off guard by this storm,” Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said at a news briefing on Monday.
Mr Edwards warned that drainage systems still clogged with debris from Ida and other storms may be deluged by the heavy rain, triggering flash floods.
Nicholas could also knock out electricity and hamper restoration efforts as more than 119,000 homes and businesses remain without power from Ida, he said.
Royal Dutch Shell on Monday began evacuating staff from a US Gulf of Mexico oil platform and other firms began preparing for hurricane-force winds.