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Karen Weakens but Track Uncertain, Say Forecasters

The intensity forecast for Tropical Storm Karen remained "rather problematic" on Friday, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC), which said the storm was weakening ahead of coming ashore Saturday and into Sunday along the northern edge of the Gulf Coast.

The NHC in Miami said Friday that Karen remained about 275 miles south-southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River and 365 miles south of New Orleans, moving northwest at 10 mph. However, maximum sustained winds, which had been near 65 mph earlier in the day, were holding at 50 mph. Forecasters in Miami were less sure that the storm would strengthen into a hurricane, but they said it commanded attention nonetheless.

"Our forecast calls for it to be right around the border of a hurricane and a tropical storm," said NHC meteorologist David Zelinsky.

The Department of Interior's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) on Friday said 41 operators had submitted status reports on their Gulf of Mexico (GOM) facilities. There was 1,497 MMcf/d of natural gas that had been shut in, or 39.38% of GOM output. Also shut in were 693,345 b/d of oil, which amounts to almost half (49.52%) of the offshore's total output.

Close to one-third of the GOM's platforms -- 185 -- had been evacuated as of Friday, along with 18 (37.5%) of the drilling rigs, according to the BSEE. Four dynamically positioned rigs also had been moved off location, which is about 12.5% of the total number.

The NHC storm track on Friday had it brushing the southeastern tip of Louisiana before moving east toward the Alabama/Florida coastlines. What concerns forecasters is that Karen is on a similar track to 2012's Hurricane Issac, a weak storm that stalled across the region and caused widespread flooding.

A cold front rolling into Texas late Friday was expected to route Karen farther northeast, away from the Louisiana coast and more toward the Florida Panhandle and coastal Alabama. However, the timing of the cold trough was uncertain.

Karen could interact with the trough into Saturday, "which might provide some support for renewed convection," forecasters said. However, the "shear may diminish in the wake of the trough, which could allow for intensification, especially if Karen turns northeastward while still over water."

NHC's intensity forecast indicated only a small change in strength between Thursday and Friday, but expect intensification to "near hurricane strength" by Saturday. After landfall, Karen is expected to weaken as it merges with the trough.

Karen is expected to pass over oil and gas fields offshore Louisiana and Alabama, but forecasts suggest it will miss the oil import facility at Port Fourchon, LA, as well as refineries that line the Mississippi River.

Some operators were bringing their offshore employees home, a process that was stepped up on Thursday (see Daily GPIOct. 4). Destin Pipeline Co. LLC declared a force majeure Thursday afternoon on its gas system and said it would not provide transportation services from offshore points until further notice. Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co. LLC was continuing to monitor the storm.

ExxonMobil Corp. has shut in about 100,000 boe/d from its offshore facilities; Hess Corp., which has a platform about 195 miles southwest of New Orleans, had evacuated employees and shuttered about 200 MMcf/d of natural gas and 60,000 b/d of oil.

"We are evacuating nonessential personnel from those offshore facilities expected to be in the path of the storm," said ExxonMobil spokeswoman Kimberly Jordan. "We are closely monitoring weather updates, determining which of our facilities may potentially be in the path of the storm and preparing those structures...We are prepared to evacuate remaining personnel from offshore facilities safely in advance of the storm."

Hundreds of federal workers involved with tracking storms and dealing with their aftermath were furloughed in the federal government shutdown. However, the NHC remained fully staffed, and the Department of Interior's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement had plans in place to compile how much production could be impacted.

President Obama, who was being updated about the storm, directed his team on Thursday to ensure staffing and resources were available to respond, spokesman Jay Carney said.

Traffic at the mouth of the Mississippi River was stopped Friday morning in advance of the storm. The U.S. Coast Guard was imposing a restricted navigation area for boats mooring within the New Orleans area protection system.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency and activated 650 National Guard troops. Five Louisiana parishes -- Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Tammany and St. Bernard -- were under a hurricane watch for the weekend. Others were under a tropical storm watch. Grand Isle, LA, Mayor David Camardelle on Friday ordered a mandatory evacuation to urge senior citizens with medical conditions to relocate. The island will take on water regardless of wind direction, submerging the only highway out, according to officials.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant also declared states of emergency. Mississippi officials were considering whether to allow high school and college football games to go on as scheduled.

"I know that Friday night football in the South is a big thing, but I don't think anybody wants to risk a life because of potential winds," said Mississippi State Emergency Management Agency Director Robert Latham. 

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