August 3, 2006

Storm Chris may not become hurricane

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Chris weakened on
Thursday and forecasters said they did not expect it to become
the season's first hurricane over the next several days as it
headed west toward U.S. oil facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.

At 2 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT), Chris was about 115 miles (185
km) north-northeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and appeared to
be heading west near 11 miles per hour (18 kph), the U.S.
National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

That track would bring it north of the Dominican Republic
and Haiti and across Cuba by the weekend.

Its top sustained winds had slowed to near 55 mph (90 kph)
and the system was become disorganized, its center moving away
from its thunderstorm activity. Tropical storms become
hurricanes if such winds reach 74 mph (119 kph).

"Currently, we're not anticipating or forecasting Chris to
become a hurricane in our last five-day forecast that we
issued," Michelle Mainelli, a hurricane specialist at the
center, told Reuters. "... It's under a little bit of a hostile
environment right now."

The Bahamas issued a hurricane watch for the Turks and
Caicos islands and for the southeastern Bahamas, meaning
hurricane conditions could be expected within 36 hours.

A tropical storm warning, indicating the arrival of
tropical storm conditions within 24 hours, was in effect for
Puerto Rico and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. A tropical
storm watch was up for much of the northern Dominican coast.

Chris' forecast path, although subject to considerable
uncertainty, could take it into the Gulf on Monday and
potentially again threaten New Orleans, which was decimated
last year by monster Hurricane Katrina.

Mainelli noted that Chris would be further weakened if it
travels as expected over the mountainous terrain of Cuba.

Experts have predicted this year could see another active
Atlantic hurricane season with several major storms though
nothing like the record number seen in 2005. Chris was the
third tropical storm of the 2006 Atlantic season.

Oil and natural gas prices had risen on the threat to
drilling platforms and exploration rigs in the Gulf, where the
waters are especially warm -- as they were last year when they
fueled Hurricanes Katrina and Rita before they slammed into the
Louisiana and Texas coastlines.

The hurricanes of 2005 shut a quarter of U.S. crude output
and sent oil prices to record highs.

Forecasters have predicted up to 17 tropical storms and
hurricanes this year. Last year saw a record 28, including
Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
Katrina killed more than 1,300 people.

(Additional reporting by Michael Christie in Miami)