MIAMI (AP) — Tropical Storm Debby lumbered offshore in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday, its track still far from certain as forecasters warned the system blamed for heavy rain squalls and one tornado in Florida could achieve near hurricane force winds early in the week.
Amid an ongoing threat of torrential downpours, authorities went on the alert for the possibility of flooding and strong winds from Texas to Florida. At least one tornado linked to the storm touched down Saturday in southwest Florida, but no injuries were reported. Heavy squalls pounded parts of that state.
At 2 a.m. EDT Sunday, Debby was about 200 miles (320 kilometers) south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph), the Nationial Hurricane Center in Miami said. Debby was moving toward the north at 6 mph (9 kph).
The center of Debby was expected to linger in the northern Gulf over the next few days with no landfall in the immediate forecast. And while the storm's track remained far from certain, the hurricane center said Debby was forecast to continue a slow northward trek during the day Sunday.
Forecasters said some strengthening was expected in the coming 48 hours and Debby could be near hurricane strength by Monday night. Meanwhile, up to six inches of rain along the coast, with isolated amounts of 10 inches were possible.
It was the first time four tropical storms have been recorded before July 1 during the Atlantic hurricane season since record keeping began in 1851.
Debby forced the suspension of 8 percent of the region's oil and gas production.
The government reported that nine production platforms and one drilling rig were evacuated. The suspended crude production amounts to about 2 percent of U.S production and about 0.1 percent of global production. The reduced production is not expected to impact oil prices unless the storm strengthens and forces more production platforms to close.
A tropical storm warning was issued for part of the southeast Louisiana coast. Officials there have been monitoring the weather closely for the last several days. Some low-lying areas close to the coast flood easily in rough weather.
Near the mouth of the Mississippi southeast of New Orleans, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said officials were making preparations to protect the main highway from tidal flooding.
A tornado touched down in Collier County in southwest Florida and forecasters warned other twisters were possible.
Several homes were damaged and tree limbs were down, smashing atop at least two cars, The Naples Daily News reported.
"This is quite common with this type of storm," senior hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart with the National Hurricane Center said of the twisters. "They tend to not be very large or long-lived, which can be difficult to detect on radar. So people need to keep an eye on the sky."
Out in the Gulf, Anadarko Petroleum removed all non-essential personnel and expects to close four facilities in the central and eastern Gulf by Saturday. Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell and Marathon Oil said non-essential personnel were being removed but production was not being affected. ExxonMobil reported that its operations were unaffected.
Alberto was the first storm this year. It formed off the South Carolina coast on May 19, almost two weeks before the hurricane season officially began June 1.
- Nature & Environment