HOUSTON — Hurricane Bonnie, the first of the very young season, churned toward the upper Texas coast Wednesday night as oil companies scurried to evacuate thousands of workers from offshore oil rigs.
The hurricane, with sustained winds of 80 m.p.h., was expected to make landfall this morning. A spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami said it would probably come ashore between Galveston and Port Arthur on the Texas coast.
"It's getting better looking from the standpoint of organization, which means it's probably getting a little stronger," said Dr. Neil Frank, director of the hurricane center. "We're telling people to prepare for the worst at daybreak; prepare now."
Hurricane warnings were posted from Morgan City, La., to Freeport, Tex., and a hurricane watch was in effect from the mouth of the Mississippi River to Port O'Connor, Tex. Galveston, just south of Houston, has 70,000 residents, but there are thousands of additional summer vacationers on nearby Galveston Island.
"I would think the tourists are leaving," said Capt. Manny Greenberg of the Galveston County Sheriff's Department. "We're urging them to gas up and get going."
In 1900, Galveston was the site of the United States' worst natural disaster, when a hurricane killed 6,000 people on the island. In 1983, Hurricane Alicia hit Galveston and Houston, causing more than $1 billion in damage.
50 Shelters Ready
Bill Tomkins, the county coordinator for emergency management, said the low-lying western end of Galveston Island was ordered evacuated Wednesday, and those who decided to weather the storm were being advised to board up their homes and businesses. In Houston, the Red Cross prepared to open up 50 shelters if needed and the city power company went on alert in case power lines were downed.
Oil companies had begun evacuating their offshore oil rigs Tuesday, when the storm was upgraded from a tropical depression to a tropical storm. An estimated 8,000 workers abandoned their rigs, although some skeleton crews remained aboard.
Hurricane center forecasters said the storm was about 100 miles southeast of Galveston Wednesday night and that it was moving toward the coast at 10 m.p.h. Tides of 5 to 7 feet above normal were forecast and authorities said the water would cut off many coastal escape routes by dawn.
Forecaster Mark Zimmer urged residents of the low-lying areas not to wait until morning before deciding whether to evacuate. "If they wait until morning and it speeds up, then they could be in trouble," he said.
The hurricane, second tropical storm of the season, grew quickly out of a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico. The season's first tropical storm, Andrew, formed in late May before the official June 1 beginning of the hurricane season. At least 47 people were killed when it raked several Caribbean islands.