Ernesto brings heavy rain, makes landfall in Mexico

Friday, August 10, 2012

VERACRUZ, Mexico -- Tropical Storm Ernesto made landfall Thursday afternoon near the port city of Coatzacoalcos and moved inland while drenching Mexico's southern Gulf, an area prone to flooding.

Ernesto spun over the far southern Gulf of Mexico, across waters dotted with oil rigs operated by the state oil company, after hurling rain across the Yucatan Peninsula but causing little major damage. The government closed its largest Gulf coast port, Veracruz and the smaller ports of Alvarado and Coatzacoalcos.

Coatzacoalcos, a major oil port, already had gotten seven inches of rain in the 24 hours before Ernesto's center passed just a few miles away, according to Mexico's weather service. San Pedro in the neighboring state of Tabasco had seen more than 10 inches.

"It's raining intermittently. It rains, its stops, and then it rains again," said Juventino Martinez, the civil defense chief in Coatzacoalcos. "We have some flooding, some water building up" on streets in lower-lying sections of the city. He said 40 shelters were ready but hadn't been used yet.

Municipal employee Brito Gomez reported water was waist high in some neighborhoods.

About 2,000 army and navy personnel were on standby to head to jungled inland mountains to help in rescue work if needed, said Noemi Guzman, Veracruz state civil defense director. Guzman said no flooding had been reported so far at any of the state's many rivers.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm's sustained winds had declined to about 50 mph by late afternoon as it interacted with land. It had grown into a hurricane shortly before landfall Tuesday night near the cruise ship port of Mahahual in Yucatan, but it weakened as it crossed the peninsula. Ernesto then steamed back out into the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday night.

The storm was centered about 55 miles west of Coatzacoalcos in late afternoon, moving to the west at 10 mph and creating the threat of torrential flooding.

The U.S. hurricane center said Ernesto was expected to produce rainfalls of up to 15 inches in some parts of the mountainous areas of Veracruz, Tabasco, Puebla and Oaxaca, before weakening and dissipating in a day or two.

With many small communities clinging to hillsides in those states, authorities worried about potential flash floods and mudslides.

Soldiers and state police evacuated three communities in Los Tuxtlas due to rising rivers and streams, taking residents to emergency shelters. People in two neighborhoods in the town of Alvarado were also temporarily relocated due to flooding after intensifying rains around the state.

Petroleos Mexicanos, the state oil monopoly, announced it had evacuated 61 workers from a drilling platform and had taken other safety precautions, but it said production had not been affected.

A new tropical depression formed in the tropical Atlantic on Thursday far from land. It was the seventh tropical depression to form in the Atlantic and forecasters said it had maximum sustained winds of 20 mph (32 kph) and was 1,155 miles (1,860 kilometers) east of the Windward Islands.

The Atlantic hurricane season got off to an early start and will likely stay busy, producing a few more storms than originally predicted, U.S. forecasters said Thursday.

Forecasters said warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures and wind patterns that favor storm formation mean chances are higher for an above-normal season. However, that is tempered with the expected development of an El Nino weather pattern over the Pacific that may suppress storms later in the season.

In the Pacific, Gilma weakened from a hurricane to a tropical storm and was not seen as a threat to land. Early Thursday afternoon, it was about 715 miles (1,150 kilometers) southwest of the southern tip of Mexico's Baja California Peninsula, with maximum sustained winds near 70 mph (110 kph).

Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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