MANAGUA, Oct 7 (Reuters) - Hurricane Nate was expected to strengthen on Saturday and make landfall, threatening the U.S. central Gulf Coast with strong winds and storm surges after killing at least 25 people in Central America.
Nate, a Category 1 hurricane, the weakest on a five-category scale used by meteorologists, was churning toward the central Gulf of Mexico as New Orleans evacuated some residents from areas outside its levee system.
“Nate is at our doorstep or will be soon,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said.
The greatest threat from this particular storm is not rain, but strong winds and storm surge, Landrieu said. The winds could cause significant power outages, and storm surges are projected to be six to nine feet (1.8 to 2.7 meters) high, he added.
“We have been through this many, many times. There is no need to panic,” Landrieu told a news conference.
The storm brushed by Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, home to beach resorts such as Cancun and Playa del Carmen, as it headed north, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
Nate packed maximum sustained winds of 80 miles per hour (130 kmh) and was about 420 miles (675 km) south-southeast of the Mississippi river on Saturday as it was expected to strengthen, the NHC said.
In the United States, a state of emergency was declared for 29 Florida counties and states near Nate’s path - Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi - as well as the city of New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The NHC issued a hurricane watch from Grand Isle, Louisiana to the Alabama-Florida border.
“By Saturday noon you should be in your safe place,” Alabama Governor Kay Ivey told a news conference. “This is a fast-moving storm and we must begin preparing now.”
Nearly three-quarters of U.S. Gulf of Mexico oil production was offline ahead of the storm, and more oil companies halted operations on Friday.
On Friday evening, Nate was moving north-northwest at 22 miles per hour (35 kmh), a fast pace which if maintained could mean the storm does less damage when it hits land.
The storm doused Central America with heavy rains on Thursday, killing at least 12 people in Nicaragua, nine in Costa Rica, two in Honduras and two in El Salvador, local authorities said.
Thousands were forced to evacuate their homes and Costa Rica’s government declared a state of emergency.
Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis urged residents to remain vigilant, noting rains would likely resume.
In Honduras, residents wondered whether they would have to flee. Norma Chavez and her two children anxiously watched a river rise outside their home in Tegucigalpa, the capital.
“We are worried that it will grow more and carry away the house,” said Chavez, 45.
Through Monday, Nate is expected to produce two to four inches (5 to 10 cm) more rain in eastern Yucatan and western Cuba and three to six inches (8 to 15 inches) in the U.S. central Gulf Coast.
About 71 percent of U.S. Gulf of Mexico oil production and 53 percent of natural gas output is offline ahead of Nate’s arrival, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) said on Friday.
Oil companies have evacuated staff from 66 platforms and five drilling rigs, it said. Oil production equaling 1.24 million barrels of crude per day is offline, according to BSEE. (Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; editing by Alexander Smith)