Nate Friday 4 p.m.

Image via National Hurricane Center

LATESTTropical Storm Nate strengthens as it churns toward Gulf, New Orleans; see latest track


Tropical Storm Nate roared toward Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula Friday morning after drenching Central America in rain that was blamed for at least 22 deaths, and forecasters said it could reach the U.S. Gulf Coast as a hurricane as early as Saturday night.

Louisiana officials have declared a state of emergency and ordered some evacuations of coastal areas and barrier islands ahead of Nate's expected landfall; evacuations also began at some offshore oil platforms in the Gulf.

The most recent track for the fast-moving storm shows it making landfall to the east of New Orleans, near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Nate is expected to reach hurricane strength by Saturday evening and make landfall by Sunday morning, at which point it will weaken to a tropical storm. 

Projections indicate anywhere from 1 to 6 inches of rain for the eastern portion of Louisiana. 

A hurricane and storm surge warning is in effect from Louisiana to the Alabama/Florida border. 

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Larger swaths of rain are expected of up to 10 inches, but that is mostly expected to fall over the Gulf.

The center of Nate, tracking at 21 mph, was projected to move across the northwestern Caribbean Sea today and move over the the northeastern coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula by Friday evening. The system will then move in the Southern Gulf of Mexico by Saturday morning, reaching the northern Gulf Coast by as early as Saturday night. 

Reports indicate that maximum sustained winds are now near 50 mph (85 km/h) with higher gusts. Additional strengthening is forecast during the next couple of days, and Nate is expected to become a hurricane by the time it reaches the northern Gulf of Mexico.

In Nicaragua, Nate's arrival followed two weeks of near-constant rain that had left the ground saturated and rivers swollen. Authorities placed the whole country on alert and warned of flooding and landslides.

Nicaragua's vice president and spokeswoman, Rosario Murillo, said that at least 15 people had died in that country due to the storm. She didn't give details on all the deaths, but said two women and a man who worked for the Health Ministry were swept away by a flooded canal in the central municipality of Juigalpa.

Costa Rica's Judicial Investigation Organism blamed seven deaths in that country on the storm and said 15 people were missing. Flooding drove 5,000 residents into emergency shelters.

The forecast track showed that Nate could brush across the tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula as a tropical storm late Friday night.

Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency for Louisiana and mobilized 1,300 National Guard troops, with 15 headed to New Orleans to monitor the fragile pumping syste.

With forecasts projecting landfall in southeast Louisiana as a Category 1 hurricane, Edwards urged residents to ready for rainfall, storm surge and severe winds — and to be where they intend to hunker down by "dark on Saturday."

Edwards said Nate is forecast to move quickly, rather than stall and drop tremendous amounts of rain on the state. State officials hope that means New Orleans won't run into problems with its pumps being able to handle the water.

Edwards warned, however, against underestimating the storm.

Officials ordered the evacuation of part of coastal St. Bernard Parish east of New Orleans ahead of the storm. Earlier Thursday, a voluntary evacuation was called for Grand Isle.

New Orleans officials outlined steps to bolster the city's pump and drainage system. Weaknesses in that system were revealed during summer flash floods.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement's New Orleans office said in a news release that as of midday Thursday, six production platforms, out of the 737 manned platforms in the Gulf, had been evacuated. No drilling rigs were evacuated, but one moveable rig was taken out of the storm's path.

The agency estimated less than 15 percent of the current oil production in the Gulf of Mexico has been shut-in, which equates to 254,607 barrels of oil per day.