Tropical Storm Florence forms in Atlantic

MIAMI – The sixth tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, Florence, formed in the distant Atlantic on Tuesday and could become a hurricane as it moves toward the United States, U.S. forecasters said.

Tropical Storm Florence was about 935 miles east of the Lesser Antilles by 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT) and moving west at 12 mph (19 kph), the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.

Long-range computer tracking models projected that the swirling mass of thunderstorms could end up as a hurricane north of the Caribbean islands by 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT) on Friday, the hurricane center said.

The weather system was still too far away to predict with accuracy, but on its current track Florence did not appear to pose any threat to key U.S. oil and gas facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tropical storms become hurricanes when their maximum sustained winds hit 74 mph (119 kph). Florence’s top sustained winds were near 40 mph (64 kph) as of late Tuesday morning.

The hurricane center said some slow strengthening was forecast during the next 24 hours.

The six-month hurricane season, which began on June 1, has only seen one hurricane so far — and that one only briefly.

Tropical Storm Ernesto reached hurricane strength near Haiti late last month and then made landfall twice in the United States as a tropical storm, first in Florida, where it was barely noticeable, and then on the mid-Atlantic coast, where it poured torrential rain on several states.

The 2005 season broke all records with 28 tropical storms, of which 15 became hurricanes, including Hurricane Katrina. Katrina devastated New Orleans just over a year ago, killing 1,500 people along the U.S. Gulf Coast and causing $80 billion in damages. Hurricane forecasters originally predicted the 2006 hurricane season would be busier than average.

Many have since cut their predictions, citing large amounts of west African dust over the Atlantic and early signs of an El Nino in the Pacific. The El Nino weather phenomenon leads to an unusual warming of Pacific waters but curtails hurricane formation in the Atlantic.