Ernesto skirting coast on way to flood-prone area
By MIGUEL ANGEL HERNANDEZ
VERACRUZ, Mexico -- Tropical Storm Ernesto skirted along Mexico's far-southern Gulf coast early Thursday, passing among some of the country's offshore oil wells while building again toward hurricane strength before landfall in a region prone to flooding.
Ernesto moved out over open water late Wednesday after crossing the Yucatan Peninsula without doing serious damage. It was expected to stay close to shore while heading westward, raising the threat of heavy rains for coastal communities.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm's sustained winds had increased to about 70 mph (110 kph) after getting over the water and was expected to gain more strength, probably growing into a hurricane again. It was a hurricane when it made landfall in Yucatan just before midnight Tuesday but weakened over land.
The Interior Department said Ernesto was expected to come ashore between the oil port of Coatzacoalcos and the coastal city of Alvarado in the Gulf of Mexico state of Veracruz. The U.S. hurricane center said it should make landfall by late afternoon or early evening.
Officials in Veracruz have readied about 20 storm shelters, said Victor Hugo Ceron of the state civil defense agency. The port captain for Veracruz city, Enrique Casarrubias, said the port there was closed to smaller vessels. The Carnival Elation cruise ship canceled a Wednesday stop, he added.
Petroleos Mexicanos, the state oil monopoly, said it was closely monitoring the storm, but did not report plans to evacuate any of about 200 oil platforms in the area. The federal Communications and Transportation Department closed two of the three main oil-exporting ports in the Gulf of Mexico because of the stormy conditions.
Ernesto has been the strongest storm to form in the Atlantic Ocean since the hurricane season began June 1, though stronger hurricanes hit Pacific coastal communities in May and June, causing at least three deaths, said David Zelinsky, a meteorologist at the U.S. hurricane center in Miami.
"Up to this point, most of the systems have been relatively weak," he said.
There were no reports of storm deaths or major damage in Yucatan, though Ernesto ripped down billboards, toppled trees and cut electricity as it hit the cruise ship port of Mahahual late Tuesday as a hurricane. It stayed south of the Yucatan's main resorts around Cancun and the Riviera Maya.
"In many places the windows were shattered," said Flori Cruz, a 27-year-old cook from the beach town.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm was about 65 miles (100 kilometers) northeast of Coatzacoalcos early Thursday and was moving west near 16 mph (26 kph).
In the Pacific, Hurricane Gilma gained some strength but was not seen as a threat to land. Early Thursday, it was about 730 miles (1,175 kilometers) southwest of the southern tip of Mexico's Baja California Peninsula, with maximum sustained winds near 80 mph (130 kph).