October 7, 2018 / 6:30 PM / 2 months ago

Storm Michael strengthens in Caribbean, threatens U.S. Gulf coast

(Reuters) - Tropical Storm Michael battered parts of Mexico and Cuba with powerful winds and drenching rains on Sunday as it strengthened in the Caribbean on a path that could see it slam into the U.S. Gulf Coast later this week with hurricane force, officials said.

The storm was packing maximum sustained winds of 60 miles per hour (95 kph) as it moved north on a path between Cozumel in southeastern Mexico and the western tip of Cuba, the Miami-based U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Michael is forecast to become a hurricane on Monday night or Tuesday and approach the U.S. Gulf Coast on Wednesday, making landfall along Florida’s northern Panhandle region, the NHC said.

The storm is then forecast to move northeast along the Atlantic Coast and batter the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence last month. That hurricane killed at least 50 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Outer bands from Michael are expected to produce up to 4 inches (10 cm) of rain through Tuesday in the Florida Keys, one of several areas in the state devastated by Hurricane Irma last year.

Governor Rick Scott issued an executive order on Sunday declaring a state of emergency in the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend as the state braces for Michael, his office said. He also activated 500 Florida Guard troops ahead of the storm and has a further 5,000 on standby.

“As we continue to monitor this storm’s northward path toward Florida, it is critically important that our communities have every available resource to keep everyone safe and prepared,” he said in a statement.

In Cuba on Sunday, Michael was expected to dump as much as 12 inches (30 cm) of rain in western parts of the island.

“This rainfall could lead to life-threatening flash floods and mudslides in areas of mountainous terrain,” the NHC said.

The Commodity Weather Group said on Sunday that some oil rigs in the area may be evacuated as a precaution, which may slow down operations but was not likely to cause much interruption.

The Gulf of Mexico is home to 17 percent of U.S. crude oil and 5 percent of natural gas output daily, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

More than 45 percent of the nation’s refining capacity is located along the U.S. Gulf Coast, which also is home to 51 percent of total U.S. natural gas processing capability.

Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Additional reporting by Rick McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney

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