Oil workers, Louisiana residents flee ahead of Storm Cristobal

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Oil workers, Louisiana residents flee ahead of Storm Cristobal

Workers disembark from a helicopter after being evacuated from oil production platforms ahead of Tropical Storm Cristobal, in Galliano

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Cristobal on Saturday dumped rain from Louisiana to the Florida peninsula as it moved through the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, prompting evacuations of several southeast Louisiana towns and dozens of offshore oil platforms.

Cristobal, packing winds of 50 miles per hour (85 km), is expected to strengthen somewhat before making landfall late Sunday along the Louisiana coast, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC).

At 7 p.m. Saturday, the storm was about 235 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi River and traveling north at about 12 miles per hour, the NHC said.

Coastal Louisiana towns including Grand Isle ordered mandatory evacuations ahead of a storm surge expected to be as much as 2 feet to 4 feet (1.2 meters) in an area between Morgan City, Louisiana, and the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The storm is not expected to become a hurricane but will bring heavy rains which could cause flash flooding in the central Gulf Coast. It could drop between 4-inches and 8-inches (20 cm) of rain along the Louisiana coast, NHC forecasters said.

The U.S. Coast Guard ordered the Port of New Orleans closed beginning at 10 p.m. to vessel traffic to and from the Gulf. The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, the largest privately owned crude export terminal, also suspended operations at its marine terminal.

Oil companies on Saturday had evacuated 177 Gulf of Mexico offshore facilities and shut-in some 616,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil and 853 million cubic feet per day of natural gas output, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said.

Traders pushed spot gasoline prices higher on Friday, fearing storm-related production losses. U.S. Gulf of Mexico platforms account for about 1.93 million bpd, or about 15% of the U.S. total daily oil production.

Still, the nine Louisiana oil refineries in the path of Cristobal plan to keep operating, according to people familiar with the matter. Combined capacity of the nine refineries is about 12% of the U.S. national total of 18.8 million bpd.

Exxon Mobil <XOM.N>, Royal Dutch Shell Plc <RDSa.L> and PBF Energy <PBF.N> prepared their Louisiana refineries to keep operating, the people said.


(Reporting by Erwin Seba and Gary McWilliams; Editing by Diane Craft and Chris Reese)