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Tropical Storm Threatens Yucatan, Heads Toward Gulf

Residents and businesses along the Gulf of Mexico face a weekend of watching and planning as the season’s first tropical storm formed off the Yucatan Peninsula.

The storm, called Alex, is about 140 miles (225 kilometers) east of Belize City and is moving west-northwest at 8 mph, according to a U.S. National Hurricane Center advisory issued at 11 a.m. New York time. It has maximum sustained winds of 45 mph, more than the 39 mph threshold needed to be classified a tropical storm.

Alex may become a threat to efforts to clean up the worst oil spill in U.S. history, as well as to offshore rigs that produce 30 percent of the country’s oil and 12 percent of its natural gas.

“We are monitoring the situation,” said Sheila Williams, a London-based spokeswoman at BP Plc, in a telephone interview. “There is no imminent threat” to the Gulf clean-up operations, she said.

“Some slight” strengthening is expected before the center of Alex reaches the coast of Belize or the Yucatan peninsula tonight, the hurricane center said in the bulletin.

Flooding, Landslides

A tropical storm warning was issued for the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula from Chetumal northward to Cancun, as well as the coast of Belize, the hurricane center said. Also, the center issued a tropical storm warning for the Honduran islands of Roatan, Guanaja and Utila. The official hurricane center tracks take the storm into the southern Gulf of Mexico by next week.

The storm is expected to drop as much as 8 inches of rain on the Yucatan Peninsula, eastern Guatemala, most of Honduras and Belize through tomorrow evening, and as much as 15 inches in mountainous areas, which may cause “life threatening” floods and landslides, the center said. Last month, at least 165 people died when Tropical Storm Agatha made landfall off the Pacific in Guatemala.

The Gulf is also home to seven of the 10 busiest U.S. ports, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

“We will have our first real threat to operations and I am still worried about the oil slick,” Jim Rouiller, a senior energy meteorologist at Planalytics Inc.

Market Value

Rouiller said a tropical storm or hurricane in the spill area would force all the oil recovery ships to flee, which would mean free-flowing crude from the rig leased by BP. The well may be gushing as many as 60,000 barrels of oil a day, according to U.S. government scientists.

BP collected about 16,340 barrels of oil yesterday, the London-based company said in an operational update on its website.

Rig crews would need to begin preparing to evacuate three to seven days ahead of the storm, U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the government’s national incident commander, said earlier this week.

BP has lost more than half of its market value since the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 crew members and triggered the spill. The company, while being investigated by U.S. authorities, has agreed with President Barack Obama to deposit $20 billion in an independently managed account to cover cleanup costs and compensation claims.

‘Equal Risk’

Rouiller predicted the storm may hit anywhere from Brownsville, Texas, to the mouth of the Mississippi. A weather front that is forecast to bring cooler air to the northern U.S. may pull the storm on a more northerly track into Louisiana, he said.

“Any part of the Gulf of Mexico right now is at equal risk of seeing tropical storm conditions,” said Rick Knabb, the Weather Channel Interactive Inc.’s hurricane expert. “We still have several days before something could get into the northern Gulf. As the weekend goes on, the window of opportunity to prepare is going to shorten.”

The storm may also take a more southerly track and become a threat to Mexico, said Joe Bastardi, chief hurricane forecaster at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania.

If the storm does miss the spill area, no one should breathe a sigh of relief, Bastardi said.

Storm Potential

“This is a real warning shot that this season isn’t going to monkey around,” Bastardi said by telephone. “It is a sign that the pot is bubbling and if it doesn’t boil over in July it will in August.”

Alex could be the first storm to hit the U.S. since Tropical Storm Ida went ashore near Mobile, Alabama, last November, according to hurricane center records.

If Alex develops into a hurricane before making landfall, it would be the first one to strike the U.S. since Hurricane Ike plowed into Galveston, Texas, in September 2008 as a Category 2 storm, causing an estimated $24.9 billion of damaged, according to the hurricane center.

The trip over the Yucatan may also destroy the storm and eliminate the threat to the Gulf, Knabb said.

“There are a couple of reliable models that show it almost dissipating,” Knabb said by telephone from Atlanta.

Academic, commercial and government forecasters are predicting the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season will be one of the most active on record.

Busy Season

In May, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration predicted an above-average season with 14 to 23 named storms forming by Nov. 30. The most active season on record was 2005, when 28 storms formed, including Hurricane Katrina, which caused New Orleans levees to fail, flooding the city and killing more than 1,800 people.

In June, Colorado State University researchers boosted their forecast, calling for 18 named storms, 10 of them becoming hurricanes. AccuWeather increased its outlook to 18 to 21 storms from 16 to 18.

“There is going to be an orgy of naming at the height of the season,” Bastardi said.

A system receives a name when sustained winds reach 39 mph (63 kph), and becomes a hurricane when those winds hit 74 mph. The Atlantic season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.

“At this time in 2005, we only had one named storm, and we ended up with 28,” Knabb said. “The fact that we haven’t had a storm yet doesn’t mean anything because hurricane season usually starts slow.”

Trailing the storm system now edging toward the Gulf is another area of disturbed weather east of the Lesser Antilles islands that the hurricane center gives a 10 percent chance of becoming a storm in the next two days.

Bastardi said that storm, if it develops, will probably take a more northerly track away from the Gulf. However, he said he believes yet another system may develop to become a threat to the Gulf within the next 10 days.

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