Tropical Storm Karen weakens as it nears U.S. Gulf Coast


* Storm weakens, not expected to become a hurricane

* Karen halts half of oil output in U.S. Gulf

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS, Oct 5 (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Karencontinued to weaken on Saturday as it approached the Louisianacoast after prompting the evacuation of some low-lying coastalareas and disrupting U.S. energy output in the Gulf of Mexico.

Karen's top winds dropped to 40 mph (65 kph), down from 65mph (105 kph) on Thursday and 50 mph (80 kph) on Friday, andNational Hurricane Center forecasters in Miami said they nolonger expected it to gain strength over the weekend, keeping ita weak tropical storm.

Originally forecast to become a hurricane, authoritiesissued mandatory evacuation orders for low-lying areas south ofNew Orleans on Friday.

Tropical storm watches and warnings were still in effect inother areas including metropolitan New Orleans and LakePontchartrain. Tropical storms carry winds of 39 mph to 73 mph(63 kph to 118 kph).

The governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Alabamadeclared states of emergency to speed storm preparations and theFederal Emergency Management Agency recalled some workers whowere furloughed in the federal government shutdown to assist.

Oil output in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico was cut in half as oiland gas firms shut platforms and evacuated some workers inpreparation for the storm. The Gulf accounts for about 19percent of U.S. oil production and 6 percent of natural gasoutput.

By early Saturday, the storm was centered about 185 miles(295 km) southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River. It wasmoving north but was forecast to turn to the northeast as itcrossed the coast.

Karen's projected path shifted slightly westward and it wasexpected to move ashore over Louisiana on Saturday night andinto Mississippi and then Alabama on Sunday.

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

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