Karl becomes hurricane and heads for eastern Mexico

MEXICO CITY Thu Sep 16, 2010 5:41pm EDT

1 of 3. A fallen palm tree is seen on a street in Chetumal as Tropical Storm Karl hits Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, September 15, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Hurricane Karl formed in the southern Gulf of Mexico on Thursday and gained strength as it headed across Mexico's offshore oil patch.

No damage was reported at Mexican oil drilling platforms and state-run oil giant Pemex has not curtailed operations, but it is monitoring Karl's progress across the Bay of Campeche in the Gulf, where the bulk of Mexico's 2.55 million barrels per day of oil is produced.

Two of Mexico's main oil exporting ports closed as Karl passed through the region.

The storm was a Category 1 hurricane, the weakest on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, with maximum winds of 80 miles per hour, but it was picking up strength as it left Mexico's main cluster of oil platforms behind and barreled toward the state of Veracruz, where it could touch land on Friday night.

"It is not out of the question that Karl could become a major hurricane before landfall," the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. "Karl is expected to strengthen steadily and possibly rapidly."

However, Karl seemed unlikely to inflict lasting damage and oil prices fell more than 2 percent as traders set aside the storm and focused on the expected resumption of a major Canadian pipeline.

The storm is the sixth hurricane of the 2010 Atlantic season. Of these, four have been "major" hurricanes that reach Category 3 or higher. At 5:00 p.m. EST (2100 GMT), Karl was located about 165 miles east of Veracruz.

Pemex suspended small craft shipping to platforms in the bay but there were no reports of damage to any oil installations there, a company employee said.

Storms in the Bay of Campeche have the potential to cause serious disruption to Mexican oil output but rarely pass far enough south to cause problems. Mexico was the No. 3 supplier of crude to the United States during the first half of this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Any disruption in production would likely last days although rare direct hits on major platforms in the past have forced lengthy shutdowns.

Earlier in the week, Karl dumped rain and brought strong winds to the Yucatan peninsula and hundreds of people, mostly Mayan villagers, were evacuated, authorities said.

The storm also knocked out power to tens of thousands of people throughout the mainly rural area. Majahual, home to a large cruise ship port, bore the brunt of the storm as it made landfall but no serious damage was reported.

Cancun, a top beach destination for U.S. and European tourists, was untouched by the storm.

Forecasters shifted the anticipated landfall of Karl south of the gasoline-importing city of Tuxpan toward Veracruz, a major Mexican port but one which does not handle any crude oil exports. The storm is expected to make landfall by late Friday afternoon.

IGOR AND JULIA

Two other hurricanes, Igor and Julia, also churned across the Atlantic Ocean but posed no immediate threat to the U.S. mainland or energy interests, projected to eventually die out far from land.

Igor was 840 miles south southeast of Bermuda with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph, having weakened to a still-dangerous Category 3 storm.

Igor was on a track that would bring it close to Bermuda late on Sunday and early on Monday.

Bermudan Home Affairs Minister David Burch urged islanders to get ready. "You should be getting prepared now -- if you wait until Saturday evening, it will be too late," he said.

Local forecasters in Bermuda said the Atlantic island should prepare for a "virtual direct hit" from Igor, which was expected to pass less than 50 miles east of the island as a Category 2 hurricane on Sunday.

Bermuda's government said the territory had not been threatened by such a severe hurricane since Hurricane Fabian in 2003, which killed four people and caused millions of dollars worth of damage.

Julia had weakened to a Category 1 storm, with 85 mph winds. It was located about 1,325 miles southwest of the Azores and was moving northwest.

The June-November hurricane season has been more active than average this year, with 11 named storms so far, but damage has been relatively limited as several storms fizzled out in the Atlantic.

(Additional reporting by Robert Campbell in Mexico City and Samantha Strangeways in Hamilton; editing by Missy Ryan and Cynthia Osterman)

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