Hobbled Tropical Storm Karen hovers off U.S. Gulf Coast


* Storm not expected to become a hurricane

* Chevron sends workers back to platform

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS, Oct 5 (Reuters) - A severely weakened TropicalStorm Karen crept toward the Louisiana coast on Saturday afterearlier fears it would reach hurricane strength prompted theevacuation of some coastal areas and disrupted U.S. energyoutput in the Gulf of Mexico.

Karen's top sustained were holding at 40 mph (65 kph) lateSaturday afternoon. But that was down from 65 mph (105 kph) onThursday and 50 mph (80 kph) on Friday, and National HurricaneCenter forecasters in Miami said data from an Air Forcereconnaissance plane showed Karen could soon lose its status asa tropical storm.

"The only tropical storm winds that the Air Force was ableto find this afternoon were limited to a very small area," saidDavid Zelinsky, a meteorologist at the Miami-based hurricanecenter.

He said dry air and wind shear continued to tear the stormapart.

Karen was originally forecast to become a hurricane, andauthorities issued mandatory evacuation orders for low-lyingareas south of New Orleans on Friday.

Chevron Corp said on Saturday it was sending workersback out to oil platforms in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, a sign theworst of the storm had already passed deepwater areas of thebasin. They had been evacuated earlier this week.

All tropical storm watches issued due to Karen were liftedon Saturday afternoon but a storm warning was still in effectfor Grand Isle, Louisiana, to the mouth of the Pearl River,between Mississippi and Louisiana.

Tropical storms carry winds of 39 mph to 73 mph (63 kph to118 kph).

The governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Alabamahad earlier declared states of emergency to speed stormpreparations and the Federal Emergency Management Agencyrecalled some workers who were furloughed in the federalgovernment shutdown to assist.

Nearly two-thirds of oil output in the U.S. Gulf of Mexicowas halted as Karen neared the Louisiana coast earlier thisweek, prompting oil and gas companies to shut platforms andevacuate workers in preparation for the storm. The Gulf accountsfor about 19 percent of U.S. oil production and 6 percent ofnatural gas output.

By late Saturday, the slow-moving storm was centered about170 miles (275 km) southwest of the mouth of the MississippiRiver. Zelinsky said Karen's projected path was likely to takeits center over the southeast corner of Louisiana early onSunday and then across the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama andthe Florida Panhandle.

The storm could dump up to 6 inches (15 cm) of rain in someareas and push a surge of seawater over the shoreline, thehurricane center said.

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