August 26, 2006

Ernesto could become a dangerous Gulf hurricane

By Michael Christie

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

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, 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.

Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Cuba 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, meaning with winds near 74 miles per hour (119 km per
hour), as it passed Jamaica and Haiti on Sunday. Next in line
were the wealthy British dependency of the Cayman Islands and

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

It was located around 190 miles south-southeast of the
Haitian capital Port-au-Prince by 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT).

Ernesto's forecast track would take it by Thursday to 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), 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.

Louisiana's governor said the state could not rest easy
with Ernesto on the way.

"Our entire coast is on alert," Gov. Kathleen Blanco told a
news conference. She praised the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
for fixing the broken levees, but acknowledged the defenses
remained untested by nature.

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

Oil prices bubbled higher on Friday as Ernesto developed.

British oil major BP Plc said it would pull 800
non-essential workers from its Gulf of Mexico drilling rigs and
non-producing platforms on Saturday, cutting its offshore Gulf
workforce by a third but not affecting production.

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 5 p.m. (2100 GMT), Ernesto's maximum sustained winds had
risen to 60 mph (95 kph) and it was moving toward the
west-northwest at about 13 mph (20 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.

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,
five of which became hurricanes. The 2005 season went on to
produce a record-breaking 28 storms, of which 15 became

(Additional reporting by Eric Beech in Washington, Peter
Henderson in New Orleans and Erwin Seba in Houston)