August 26, 2006

Ernesto could become a dangerous hurricane

By Michael Christie

MIAMI (Reuters) - The fifth tropical storm of the Atlantic
hurricane season, Ernesto, could become a dangerously powerful
hurricane in the oil-producing Gulf of Mexico next week, U.S.
forecasters said on Saturday.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said forecasting
Ernesto's future strength was riddled with uncertainty.

But very warm waters in its path as it approached the Gulf,
where a quarter of U.S. crude oil and natural gas production is
located, could lead to significant strengthening around the
anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the Miami-based center said.

"This could result in Ernesto becoming a powerful hurricane
in the Gulf of Mexico," said hurricane center forecaster Lixion
Avila in a bulletin on the storm.

Jamaica and the Cayman Islands issued hurricane watches as
Ernesto bore down. A hurricane watch means hurricane conditions
can be expected within 36 hours.

The hurricane center said Ernesto could be near hurricane
strength, with winds of at least 74 miles per hour (119 km per
hour), as it passed Jamaica on Sunday, en route to the wealthy
British dependency of the Cayman Islands.

If it does become a hurricane, it will be the first of the
six-month hurricane season, which began June 1.

Located around 250 miles south-southwest of Santo Domingo,
the capital of the Dominican Republic, by 11 a.m. EDT (1500
GMT), Ernesto's forecast track could take it over the western
tip of Cuba by Tuesday.

By Thursday, it was projected to be swirling in the middle
of the Gulf as a Category 3 hurricane on the 5-step Saffir
Simpson scale of storm intensity, with sustained winds of at
least 111 mph (178 kph) that are capable of damaging homes.

Hurricane Katrina was a Category 3 storm when it came
ashore in Louisiana last August 29 and devastated the city of
New Orleans by breaching its levees. It killed around 1,500
people on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Katrina, and the other hurricanes produced by a record
storm season last year, toppled offshore oil platforms,
destroyed undersea pipelines and flooded coastal refineries.
Oil prices soared to record highs.

Oil prices bubbled higher on Friday as Ernesto developed,
and energy companies said they were prepared to evacuate
workers from oil rigs if necessary.

Ernesto's eventual target zone ranged anywhere from the
Florida Panhandle through New Orleans and down to the border
with Mexico, but the northern Gulf coast appeared most likely.

At 11 a.m./1500 GMT, Ernesto's maximum sustained winds were
holding steady at 50 mph (80 kph) and it was moving toward the
west-northwest near 14 mph (22 kph).

Rainfall of 4 to 8 inches was possible over Jamaica, with
some areas getting up to 12 inches. A total of 3 to 6 inches
was likely over Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the hurricane
center said.

A tropical storm warning remained in effect for the south
coast of Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the
Dominican Republic, and the hurricane center warned residents
in western Cuba, Mexico's Yucatan peninsula and around the Gulf
of Mexico to be on guard.

This hurricane season, while forecast to be busier than
average, has been relatively quiet with just five tropical
storms and no hurricane to date.

By this time last year there had been 11 tropical storms,
of which five became hurricanes, including Katrina. The 2005
season went on to produce a record-breaking 28 storms, of which
15 became hurricanes with winds of at least 74 mph (119 kph).

(Additional reporting by Eric Beech in Washington)