KINGSTON, Jamaica – Tropical Storm Ernesto gathered strength as it steamed through the central Caribbean toward Jamaica on Saturday and threatened to enter the Gulf of Mexico as the first hurricane of the 2006 Atlantic season.
Ernesto could grow into a Category 3 hurricane by Thursday, menacing a broad swath of the Gulf Coast including hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami forecast. Category 3 Hurricane Katrina struck the city a year ago Tuesday.
“It looks likely that it will hit (the U.S.), but it’s way too soon to say where” or how much impact it would have, said John Cangialosi, a meteorologist with the hurricane center. “At this point, keep a close eye, anyone in the Gulf Coast, and just keep monitoring this.”
Standing in the hurricane’s path, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Cuba issued hurricane watches as the storm’s winds grew to near 60 mph late Saturday. It was forecast to become a hurricane as early as this evening while it passes near Jamaica, Cangialosi said.
Ernesto’s course would bring it over Jamaica by this afternoon, dumping 4 to 8 inches of rain on the island with up to a foot possible in some areas, the hurricane center said. Fisherman were warned to return to shore – with tides of up to 3 feet above normal expected.
Similar rainfall and tides were possible for Haiti.
Fears that the storm could damage offshore energy facilities in the Gulf of Mexico sent oil and natural gas prices higher.
BP PLC said it would evacuate some 800 of its 2,400 workers from the Gulf of Mexico by late Saturday due to the storm. The evacuated workers are not essential staff, most associated with long-term projects that have not begun producing, BP spokesman Hugh DePland told Dow Jones Newswires.
Meanwhile, former Tropical Storm Debby, now a depression with maximum winds of 30 mph, was expected to stay over the open Atlantic, posing only a threat to ships.