(Reuters) - Communities and oil refining and production facilities from Texas to Florida braced on Tuesday for potential disruptions as Tropical Storm Cindy strengthened over the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, threatening to bring flash floods across parts of the northern Gulf Coast.
Cindy was located about 230 miles (365 km) south of Morgan City, Louisiana late Tuesday with maximum sustained winds of 60 miles (95 km) per hour, the National Hurricane Center said.
The storm was moving toward the northwest near seven miles (11 km) per hour, and this motion was expected to continue through Wednesday.
On the forecast track, the center of Cindy will approach the coast of southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas late Wednesday, and move inland over southeastern Texas on Thursday, the Miami-based weather forecaster said.
A Tropical Storm Warning is in effect for San Luis Pass, Texas to the Alabama-Florida border, Metropolitan New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain.
"The winds aren't looking to get much stronger than they are now," but some areas east of Houston and toward Florida could see as much as 12 inches of rain, said Stephen Strum, vice president of extended forecast services at Weather Decision Technologies in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
"It's moving fairly slow, so it's going to produce rain for a long time," he added.
Heavy rains and wind could disrupt oil supplies at the massive refining and production centers along the U.S. Gulf Coast, which could drive up prices for consumers. The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP), the largest privately owned crude storage terminal in the United States, suspended vessel offloading operations ahead of the storm, but said it expected no interruptions to deliveries from its hub in Clovelly, Louisiana.
Royal Dutch Shell said it suspended some offshore well operations but production was so far unaffected. Anadarko Petroleum said it had evacuated non-essential staff from its Gulf of Mexico facilities.
Exxon Mobil Corp, Phillips 66, and Motiva Enterprises said the storm had not affected their refining operations.
Cindy was expected to produce six to nine inches (15-23 cm) of rain with isolated maximum amounts of 12 inches over southeastern Louisiana, southern Mississippi, southern Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle through Thursday, the NHC said.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey declared a state of emergency. Officials in Houston, New Orleans and other cities along the Gulf Coast said they were monitoring developments. Florida Governor Rick Scott warned residents in the northwest part of his state to stay alert for flooding and heavy rain.
The storm could cause a surge of one to three feet along the coast and possibly spawn tornados from southern Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, the NHC said.
The Gulf of Mexico is home to about 17 percent of U.S. crude output and 5 percent of dry natural gas output, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. More than 45 percent of the nation's refining capacity is along the U.S. Gulf Coast, also home to 51 percent of total U.S. natural gas processing capability.
Crude oil prices for physical delivery along the U.S. Gulf Coast were relatively stable, but cash gasoline prices rose as traders expected heavy rains and possible flooding to hit refineries in the region.
Prompt U.S. Gulf Coast conventional gasoline firmed to trade as little as 2 cents per gallon under the RBOB futures contract, its strongest in four months.
WeatherBell Analytics LLC forecast 11 to 13 named tropical storms in the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season, according to a May outlook.
The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30, and has an annual average of 9.6 named storms, 5.9 hurricanes and 2.3 intense hurricanes.
Southeast of the Gulf of Mexico, a second tropical storm, Bret has been downgraded into a tropical wave.
(Reporting by Koustav Samanta, Nallur Sethuraman, Swati Verma, Apeksha Nair and Arpan Varghese in Bengaluru, Catherine Ngai and Devika Krishna Kumar in New York and Liz Hampton in Houston; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Chris Reese and David Gregorio)