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Tropical Storm Ernesto weakens slightly as it races toward Gulf of Mexico

Fast-moving Tropical Storm Ernesto could veer into the Gulf of Mexico as soon as early next week, experts said, so long as its breakneck pace continues.

The storm, which weakened slightly to 45 mph winds overnight, showed no signs of slowing as it barreled across the Caribbean early Friday.

But this slight weakening after its formation Thursday in the Atlantic Ocean should have little bearing on the storm's long-term potential, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Ernesto, the fifth named storm of the season, was expected to intensify steadily in coming days and reach hurricane status by next week.

The overnight disorganization that weakened Ernesto as it moved into the Caribbean was due to atmospheric conditions and strong wind shear. Those unfavorable conditions were expected to lessen as the storm races closer to the gulf.

Experts said it was too soon to say whether the storm, located about 40 miles southwest of St. Lucia at 8 a.m. Friday, would ultimately affect Florida or the greater United States.

Several island nations issued tropical storm watches and warnings as Ernesto moved westward at 24 mph, bringing up to 5 inches of rainfall, rough surf and strong winds extending up to 115 miles from the center of the storm.

In its 8 a.m. advisory Friday the hurricane center also noted two other systems churning in the Atlantic Basin: one over the northwestern Bahamas and another off the coast of the Cape Verde Islands in Africa.

The first system, a disorganized mass of clouds and showers, was not expected to become a tropical cyclone over the next couple of days.

But the tropical wave off the coast of Africa had a moderate chance of developing and could indicate the beginnings of Cape Verde season, the point in the middle of hurricane season when large storms form off the coast of north-central Africa and grow stronger as they push westward, eventually emerging as hurricanes before reaching the Caribbean Sea.

The peak of the Cape Verde season is August and September, and a typical year would have one to five hurricanes.

This hurricane season was predicted to be reasonably quiet with nine to 15 named storms expected. Of those only four to eight are expected to become hurricanes, according to the hurricane center.

Marissa Lang can be reached at mlang@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386.

Tropical Storm Ernesto weakens slightly as it races toward Gulf of Mexico 08/03/12 [Last modified: Friday, August 3, 2012 4:28pm]
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