CORRECTED-(Official)-UPDATE 3-Ernesto weakens over southern Mexico, churns toward Gulf

Thu Aug 9, 2012 5:19am IST

(Removes reference to port reopening on corrected government
information)
    * Ernesto downgraded to tropical storm as it hits Yucatan
    * Expected to emerge over Gulf of Mexico later
    * Mexico reopens one of three oil exporting ports

    By David Alire Garcia
    CHETUMAL, Mexico, Aug 8 (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 (50 km)
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 (20 kph) 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 (65 km) 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 (10 to 20 cm), and possibly 12
inches (30 cm) 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 Nov. 30.

 (Additional reporting by Isela Serrano in Cancun and Liz Diaz
Gabriel Stargardter in Mexico City; editing by Vicki Allen and
Mohammad Zargham)
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