NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) – The hills of the Yucatan Peninsula sapped Tropical Storm Cristobal of some of its power on Thursday (June 4), but forecasters warn it will likely gain strength as it heads north across the Gulf of Mexico to the US coast, where it could bring downpours, high winds and rough surf.
Cristobal will begin moving through the US Gulf’s offshore energy region on Saturday.
While there remains a slight chance it could gain hurricane status as it crosses the Gulf, it most likely will be a tropical storm by the time it makes landfall early on Monday somewhere between Houston and Mobile, Alabama, according to the US National Hurricane Centre.
The storm’s winds are forecast to peak at 97 kilometres per hour, the centre said, less than the 119kmh needed to make it a hurricane.
Dry air and wind shear could offset any significant power surge from the Gulf’s warm waters, said Mr Rob Miller, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc.
“The guidance right now and our feeling is that it probably won’t get there,” Mr Miller said.
“It is not out of the question, but a moderate to strong tropical storm seems more likely.”
Mr Miller expects the storm’s effects to hit the US coast starting on Saturday, with heavy rains spreading from Tampa, Florida, to western Louisiana. In some cases, that could be a good thing, at least for agriculture.
The region where the heaviest rain is expected to fall “is currently in a moderate to severe drought”, Mr Jeff Masters, a meteorologist with Scientific American, said by e-mail.
“So widespread major flooding is unlikely.”
On Thursday, Cristobal was downgraded to a tropical depression with 56kmh winds as it rolled across southern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, according to an 11am New York time update by the hurricane centre.
“Assuming that the centre will emerge over the Gulf of Mexico in about 36 hours, re-intensification should begin by tomorrow evening,” the centre reported.
While Cristobal may help regional agriculture, it has also put pressure on energy markets as companies begin evacuating personnel from offshore rigs and platforms and the price for gasoline rising.
Offshore platforms account for 16 per cent of US crude oil production and 2.4 per cent of natural gas output, according to the Energy Department.
Additionally, more than 45 per cent of US refining capacity and 51 per cent of gas-processing capacity is located on the coast.
BP Plc said on Wednesday it was removing offshore personnel and ramping down production at its Thunder Horse, Atlantis and Na Kika oil and gas platforms.
It also said non-essential workers were being evacuated from the Mad Dog platform, though production remained unaffected.
Energy prices are already reacting in the US, with Houston benchmark gasoline moving higher as traders secure supply ahead of the storm.
Cristobal could push the average retail price of a gallon of gasoline over US$2, according to AAA.
Cristobal is the third storm to form in the Atlantic this year, marking the fastest start to hurricane season on record.
If it holds its strength and lands along the Gulf Coast, it will be the second to strike the US, even though the season will officially only be a week old.
If it manages to reach hurricane status, it would be the earliest such a powerful storm hit the US, breaking the old mark set by Hurricane Alma on June 9, 1966, according to AccuWeather.
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