August 25, 2006

Tropical Storm Ernesto threatens Caribbean

By Michael Christie

MIAMI (Reuters) - The fifth tropical storm of the Atlantic
hurricane season, Ernesto, formed in the Caribbean on Friday
and could become a hurricane threatening U.S. oil and gas
platforms in the Gulf of Mexico on the anniversary of Hurricane
Katrina, forecasters said.

The governments of Haiti and Jamaica issued storm watches,
and the U.S. National Hurricane Center said residents of the
wealthy Cayman Islands and of western Cuba should also be on

Tropical storms do not have powerful winds, but they can
bring heavy rains that pose a danger for undeveloped nations,
like Haiti, with poor building standards.

Energy traders also watched the storm because of the
potential for it to strengthen as it neared the Gulf, where
hurricanes temporarily knocked out much of U.S. crude oil and
natural gas production last year. The Gulf provides about a
quarter of U.S. oil and gas output.

The Miami-based hurricane center forecast that Ernesto
would become a Category 1 hurricane, with 65-knot, or
74-mile-per-hour (119-km-per-hour), winds, by Monday, a day
before the anniversary of Katrina, which devastated New Orleans
and killed about 1,500 people.

The Gulf waters this year are particularly warm. Warm
waters are the fuel hurricanes need to gain power.

"There is a chance that Ernesto could be much stronger than
currently forecast over the Gulf of Mexico," hurricane center
forecaster Jack Beven said in a bulletin on the storm.

By 5 p.m. (2100 GMT), the center of Ernesto was 300 miles

south-southwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and moving toward
the west-northwest at 16 mph (26 kph).

Sustained winds were about 40 mph (65 kph).

The system could drop 3 to 6 inches of rain over Jamaica
and Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican
Republic, and 1 to 3 inches of rain on parts of the Netherlands
Antilles and Puerto Rico.

In the eastern Atlantic, Tropical Storm Debby was barely
clinging to tropical storm status with 40 mph (64 kph) winds.

The Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to
November 30, has been relatively quiet, with five tropical
storms and no hurricanes. But activity usually revs up between
mid-August and late October.

(Additional reporting by Jim Loney)