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Gulf Coast braces for tropical storm; rigs evacuated

2d system forms in Caribbean

NEW ORLEANS -- A strengthened Tropical Storm Cindy moved its way toward the Gulf Coast yesterday with winds of 70 miles per hour and the potential for 10 inches of rain, forcing tourists and residents to head for higher ground and oil companies to evacuate rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, a second tropical storm, Dennis, developed in the Caribbean, and forecasters warned it could hit Florida later in the week.

Cindy reached tropical storm strength early yesterday and by early afternoon had sustained wind of around 70 miles per hour, just shy of the hurricane threshold of 74 miles per hour. Forecasters said Cindy could reach the coast around the Louisiana-Mississippi state line by early today, but it was not expected to become a hurricane.

Bands of rain from the storm began hitting the coast yesterday. Some of the rain was heavy and there were scattered reports of street flooding in Jefferson Parish, a New Orleans suburb.

A tropical storm warning was posted from Morgan City, La., to the Florida Panhandle town of Destin.

July 5 is the earliest date on record for four named storms to have formed in the Atlantic, and worries about the already active season helped send oil prices climbing briefly past $60 a barrel yesterday.

A survey of oil companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico found that 23 petroleum production platforms and six drilling rigs had been evacuated, interrupting more than 3 percent of the gulf's normal oil and natural gas production.

On Louisiana's tiny barrier island town of Grand Isle, officials ordered recreational vehicles to leave so that Louisiana Highway 1, the only route off the island, would not be clogged with slow-moving traffic should a full-scale evacuation be necessary.

''It would be horrendous with all these campers on the highway to get our people out," said Grand Isle town clerk Ray Santiny.

Officials of Louisiana's coastal Lafourche and Plaquemines parishes called for voluntary evacuations of people living outside of storm protection levees.

In Mississippi's coastal Hancock County, jail inmates filled sandbags for distribution to flood-prone areas, said Dee Lumpkin of the county's Emergency Operations Center.

At 5 p.m., Cindy was centered 95 miles southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River and was moving north at about 14 miles per hour, with a gradual turn expected toward the northeast. Tropical storm-force wind and rain extended up to 105 miles to the east of its center.

Dennis was centered about 325 miles south-southwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and moving west-northwest at about 20 miles per hour. It was on track to reach Haiti today and South Florida on Friday, said hurricane center meteorologist Trisha Wallace.

Dennis was moving toward the Gulf with winds of 40 miles per hour, just above the 39-mile-per-hour threshold for tropical storm status.

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