NEW YORK (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Gustav strengthened Thursday morning as it headed towards Jamaica, and the system was expected to regain hurricane status later today, the U.S. National Hurricane Centre said in its latest advisory.
At 8 a.m. EDT (1 p.m. British time), Gustav was expected to be located about 80 miles east of Kingston, Jamaica, and about 170 miles south of Guantanamo, Cuba, with maximum sustained winds up to 70 miles per hour, just shy of the 74 mph required for a Category One hurricane.
The system was moving very little but was expected to head west-southwest, then turn west later today as it passed very close to Jamaica.
The government of Jamaica issued a hurricane warning.
Most computer weather models still showed the storm heading in a north-westerly direction, skirting the southern coast of Cuba, then entering the central Gulf of Mexico on Sunday.
While extended hurricane track projections are not always accurate, Gustav’s current path could take it through key oil and gas producing areas off the coast of Louisiana or Texas on Monday and Tuesday as a powerful Category 3 storm with winds of about 115 mph.
U.S. oil and gas companies including Shell and BP started evacuating staff from offshore Gulf of Mexico platforms on Wednesday, and more evacuations were expected as long as the current projected storm track holds.
U.S. crude oil prices have gained more than $5 a barrel or 4 percent this week on concerns that Gustav could damage offshore oil platforms or disrupt key U.S. Gulf Coast refining operations.
U.S. natural gas prices have spiked about 11 percent so far this week on the storm fears.
Nearly a quarter of U.S. crude oil and 15 percent of the nation’s natural gas are produced in the Gulf of Mexico.
The NHC was also monitoring newly-formed Tropical Depression Eight located about 355 miles east-northeast of the northern Leeward Islands.
NHC said the system has the potential to become Tropical Storm Hanna later today or Friday.
Computer tracks show TD8 moving northwest, then possibly turning west towards Florida or the U.S. Southeast coast.
There was also another large tropical wave located in the far eastern Atlantic 750 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands. This system has some potential for slow development during the next couple of days as it moves westward at 10 to 15 mph.
The next report will be issued by the NHC at 11 a.m.
Reporting by Joe Silha, editing by John Picinich