Caribbean Storms Strengthen, May Head for Oil Spill

The first tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane season has a 70 percent chance of forming this weekend, with one computer model indicating it could head into the Gulf of Mexico where BP Plc has a flotilla of vessels trying to clean up an oil spill.

A collection of thunderstorms was intensifying in the Caribbean off Honduras and Nicaragua, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said at 8 a.m. Miami time today. The center said its forecast for the system turning into a tropical storm would evolve over the next 48 hours as it heads toward Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

“It’s favorable to become a tropical depression by tomorrow night, perhaps a tropical storm by the weekend and maybe even a hurricane by the end of the weekend or early next week,” said Jack Boston, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc. “Right now the chances of it going over the oil or going to the west of it are about equal.”

Another system now developing east of the Lesser Antilles has a less than 10 percent chance now of becoming a tropical storm in the next 48 hours.

Government forecasters say the hurricane season that started June 1 may be the worst since 2005, when storms including Katrina devastated New Orleans and damaged oil platforms and pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico.

Storms will hamper what President Barack Obama has called the biggest environmental cleanup in U.S. history to deal with BP’s leaking oil well off the coast of Louisiana.

Computer models show several scenarios if a tropical storm forms this weekend, Boston said. One heads through the center of the Gulf early next week toward Louisiana where BP is trying to clean up its oil slick. Another heads across the western Gulf toward Texas or Mexico, and away from the spill.

If it goes over the oil, “we don’t know what that’s going to do because it’s never happened before,” Boston said. “That would be the worst-case scenario.”

Gulf Storms

The Gulf of Mexico produces 30 percent of the oil and 12 percent of the natural gas from the U.S. and is home to 7 of the 10 busiest ports in the country. Hurricanes and tropical storms can force evacuation of oil and gas rigs, reducing supply and driving up prices.

Even if a tropical storm doesn’t develop this weekend, it will produce heavy rain and potential flooding wherever it tracks, Heather Buchman, a meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc., said on her weblog yesterday.

AccuWeather on June 21 raised its forecast for the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season to 18 to 21 named storms, up from 16 to 18. There have been five seasons with 18 or more storms in 160 years of record-keeping, the Pennsylvania-based commercial forecaster said.

The U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration forecast 14 to 23 named storms for this season.

Oil Disaster

Atlantic weather systems are named when they reach tropical storm status with sustained winds of 39 miles (63 kilometers) per hour, while hurricanes have a minimum wind speed of 74 miles per hour. The first tropical storm of this season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, will be named Alex.

The April explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, leased by BP from Transocean Ltd., killed 11 workers and triggered the spill. BP is using chemical dispersants to break down the fuel while collecting some of the oil from the damaged well.

A hurricane could stop oil-capture efforts and delay drilling of intercept wells to plug the leak by 10 days, U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the government’s national incident commander, said this week. Rig crews would need to begin preparing to evacuate three to seven days ahead of the storm, Allen said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Stuart Biggs in Tokyo at sbiggs3@bloomberg.net.

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