Oil and gas producers pulled staff from offshore platforms while Alabama, Florida and Mississippi declared states of emergency as Tropical Storm Nate twisted toward the U.S. Gulf Coast on Friday after killing at least 22 people in Central America.
Nate is predicted to become a Category 1 hurricane, the weakest level on a five-category scale used by meteorologists, by the time it hits the U.S. central Gulf Coast on Saturday night or Sunday.
The storm had been heading toward Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, but its path changed Friday morning, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, indicating that it would only skim popular tourist destinations such as Cancun.
Nate was blowing maximum sustained winds of 50 miles per hour (80 kmh) and was about 125 miles (200 km) southeast of the Mexican holiday resort island of Cozumel early on Friday afternoon, according to the NHC.
The storm is expected to brush by the edge of the Yucatan peninsula, home to beach resorts such as Cancun and Playa del Carmen, before heading into the Gulf of Mexico, the NHC said.
In the United States, a state of emergency was declared for 29 Florida counties and the states of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as the city of New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The NHC has issued a hurricane watch from Grand Isle, Louisiana to the Alabama/Florida border.
On Friday afternoon, Nate was moving northwest at 21 miles per hour (34 kmh), a fast pace which if maintained would mean the storm did less damage when it hits land.
CENTRAL AMERICA DEATHS
The storm doused Central America with heavy rains on Thursday, killing at least 11 people in Nicaragua, eight in Costa Rica, two in Honduras and one in El Salvador, local authorities said.
Thousands were forced to evacuate their homes and Costa Rica's government declared a state of emergency, closing schools and all other non-essential services.
Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis declared three days of mourning and urged residents to remain vigilant through the weekend, noting rains would likely resume.
In Honduras, anxious residents wondered whether they would have to flee their homes. 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.
Nate is expected to produce six to 10 inches (15 to 25 cm) of rain in parts of Honduras and Nicaragua, two to four inches (5 to 10 cm) of rain in eastern Yucatan and western Cuba and three to six inches (8 to 15 inches) of rain 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.