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Storm front passes Gulf oil wells

Tropical Storm Ernesto has skirted along Mexico's far-southern Gulf coast, passing among some of the country's offshore oil wells while building again toward hurricane strength before landfall in a region prone to flooding.

Ernesto moved out over open water on Wednesday night after crossing the Yucatan Peninsula without doing serious damage. It is expected to stay close to shore while heading westward, raising the threat of heavy rains for coastal communities.

The US National Hurricane Centre said the storm's sustained winds had speeded up to about 65mph after getting over the water and are expected to gain more strength, probably growing into a hurricane again.

It was a hurricane when it made landfall in Yucatan just before midnight on Tuesday but weakened over land.

Mexico's Interior Department said Ernesto is expected to come ashore between the oil port of Coatzacoalcos and the coastal city of Alvarado in the Gulf of Mexico state of Veracruz. The US hurricane centre said it should make landfall by late afternoon or early evening.

Officials in Veracruz have readied about 20 storm shelters, said Victor Hugo Ceron of the state civil defence agency. The port captain for Veracruz city, Enrique Casarrubias, said the port there was closed to smaller vessels. The Carnival Elation cruise ship cancelled a stop yesterday, he added.

Petroleos Mexicanos, the state oil monopoly, said it was closely monitoring the storm, but did not report plans to evacuate any of about 200 oil platforms in the area. The federal Communications and Transportation Department closed two of the three main oil-exporting ports in the Gulf of Mexico because of the storm.

Ernesto has been the strongest storm to form in the Atlantic Ocean since the hurricane season began on June 1, though stronger hurricanes hit Pacific coastal communities in May and June, causing at least three deaths, said David Zelinsky, a meteorologist at the hurricane centre in Miami,

"Up to this point, most of the systems have been relatively weak," he said.

There were no reports of storm deaths or major damage in Yucatan, though Ernesto ripped down billboards, toppled trees and cut electricity as it hit the cruise ship port of Mahahual as a hurricane. It stayed south of the Yucatan's main resorts around Cancun and the Riviera Maya.

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