MIAMI, FLORIDA (BNO NEWS) -- Tropical Storm Ernesto weakened on Wednesday as it spun across Mexico's southern Yucatan Peninsula, dumping heavy rains and forcing thousands to evacuate but there were no immediate reports of casualties, Mexican officials and U.S. forecasters said.
Ernesto made landfall at approximately 10 p.m. CDT Tuesday (0300 GMT Wednesday) along the southern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula near the cruise ship port of Mahahual with maximum sustained winds near 85 miles (140 kilometers) per hour, making it a category one hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity.
The system weakened to a tropical storm about six hours after landfall as Ernesto raced across the peninsula, forcing more than 2,500 people to be evacuated as a precaution in Chetumal and around 600 people in Punta Allen. Authorities also evacuated thousands of tourists from low-lying coastal areas.
But there were no immediate reports of major damage or casualties as Ernesto moved into the extreme southern Bay of Campeche on late Wednesday afternoon. The Federal Electricity Commission said more than 85,000 people lost power in the Mexican states of Quintana Roo and Campeche as a result of Ernesto, but more than 60 percent of them had their power restored within hours.
Also on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Civil Protection agency in Chiapas rejected media reports that Ernesto caused the deaths of two fishermen and left three others missing. "It is not true, the two fishermen died of causes that are not associated with the Tropical Storm Ernesto," the spokesperson said.
As of 4 p.m. CDT (2100 GMT) on Wednesday, the center of Ernesto was located about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northeast of Ciudad del Carmen, a port city in the Mexican state of Campeche. The system is moving toward the west at a speed of about 13 miles (20 kilometers) per hour.
Maximum sustained winds of Ernesto increased to 50 miles (85 kilometers) per hour as it moved into the extreme southern Bay of Campeche. "Ernesto has held together fairly well after its passage over the Yucatan Peninsula," said Richard Pasch, a senior hurricane specialist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC). "The storm continues to have a well-organized appearance on satellite imagery, with distinct banding features."
It was initially thought that Ernesto would regain hurricane strength before it makes landfall in Mexico again, but forecasters now expect the system will remain a tropical storm. "Given the organization and favorable atmospheric environment, the amount of re-strengthening will depend mainly on how long the cyclone stays over the water," Pasch said. "The official intensity forecast assumes that Ernesto will move back over land in less than 24 hours and therefore shows only a modest increase in intensity."
Forecasters expect Ernesto will make its second landfall on late Thursday near the Mexican oil port of Coatzacoalcos in Veracruz state. Rapid weakening and dissipation should occur soon after due to very high terrain in the region, but some computer models have indicated there is a small possibility that Ernesto could cross into the Eastern Pacific basin, which is an extremely rare event.
"Some of the dynamical models indicate that the mid- to upper-level circulation will remain intact and move into the Eastern Pacific, and regenerate into a tropical cyclone in that basin. That unusual scenario is being dismissed at this time," Pasch said. The NHC's official forecast currently expects Ernesto to dissipate on Friday afternoon, well before it reaches the East Pacific.
Ernesto is the fifth tropical cyclone of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, which officially began on June 1. It was followed by the sixth tropical cyclone when Tropical Storm Florence formed in the far eastern Atlantic, but the storm dissipated on Monday without affecting any land.
According to figures released in late May, NOAA's Climate Prediction Center is expecting a near-normal hurricane season in the Atlantic this year. The outlook calls for nine to fifteen named storms, with four to eight becoming hurricanes and one to three of them expected to become a major hurricane (category 3 or higher).
Based on the period from 1981 to 2010, an average Atlantic hurricane season produces twelve named storms, with six becoming hurricanes and three becoming major hurricanes. The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30, with peak activity between August and October.
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