Ernesto weakens over southern Mexico, churns toward Gulf
CHETUMAL, Mexico (Reuters) - Tropical storm Ernesto weakened on Wednesday as it dumped heavy rains over Mexico's southern Yucatan peninsula and headed toward the Gulf of Mexico, where the country's main oil operations are located.
A hurricane warning for Mexico's western Gulf coast was called off earlier on Wednesday and replaced with lower-grade hurricane watch as the storm lost strength over land, although its top wind speed rose later in the day.
The storm spared major tourist areas on the Yucatan coast from a direct hit and landed in sparsely populated low-lying jungle late on Tuesday. It made land as a Category 1 hurricane, the lowest on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, and was downgraded to a tropical storm early on Wednesday.
The center of the storm was set to move over the extreme southern Bay of Campeche later on Wednesday, where state oil company Pemex has port facilities and offshore platforms, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said in its 4 p.m. EDT (2000 GMT) advisory.
At that time, the storm was located 30 miles northeast of Ciudad del Carmen in the state of Campeche. Hurricane conditions were possible again by Thursday as the storm approaches the Gulf coast, the center said.
Mexico closed its three major oil export ports in the Gulf of Mexico, Coatzacoalcos, Cayo Arcas and Dos Bocas, port authorities said.
Almost all of Mexico's crude oil exports are shipped to refineries on the Gulf Coast of the United States from the three ports.
"The prognosis is to be operational again on Thursday," said Dos Bocas official Guadalupe Perez. "But we don't know when it will open. It depends on the size of the waves."
The storm looked set to sweep the Minatitlan refinery, which processes 185,000 barrels per day.
OIL FIELDS OPERATING NORMALLY
A Pemex representative said all the company's facilities in the area were operating normally, including the oil fields of Cantarell and Ku Maloob Zaap, which account for just over half of Mexico's oil production of about 2.5 million bpd.
Ernesto's top sustained wind speed rose to 50 miles per hour (85 km per hour) on Wednesday afternoon and it was moving west at 13 mph over the southern portion of the Yucatan peninsula.
Winds blew down trees and knocked out power in some small towns in Campeche state, a civil protection official said.
A hurricane watch was in effect along the coast of Veracruz state, but civil protection authorities there said they doubted Ernesto would arrive with much strength after losing steam over the Yucatan.
Still, authorities said they were preparing emergency shelters, if needed, in the flood-prone and densely populated state.
The storm landed on the Mexican coast near the port town of Mahahual, 40 miles north of Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo state. Ernesto passed well south of the major tourist resort of Cancun, which saw only heavy rains.
Several convoys of federal police and marines arrived at Mahahual, which was severely damaged by hurricane Dean in 2007, to help repair fallen electricity lines and assist local residents.
"There is a lot of damage. The windows, the roof upstairs, everything is destroyed," said Anabel Meneses, 36, a restaurant owner in the port as she recalled her business bustling with clients watching an Olympics soccer match only two days ago.
About 2,500 people were evacuated from Chetumal up the coast to Tulum in an area known for its scuba diving and eco-tourism attractions.
Some 90 people took shelter in a high school in Chetumal, where the storm flooded streets and knocked down trees.
Rainfall of 4 to 8 inches, and possibly 12 inches in some areas, was expected over Belize and northern Guatemala, the Yucatan peninsula and the states of Tabasco and Veracruz.
August and September are usually the most active months of the Atlantic-Caribbean hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30.
(Additional reporting by Isela Serrano in Cancun and Liz Diaz Gabriel Stargardter in Mexico City; editing by Vicki Allen and Mohammad Zargham)
(This story was refiled to remove reference to port reopening on officially corrected government information)
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