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Storm Michael churns in Caribbean, threatens US Gulf Coast

[AUSTIN, Texas] Tropical Storm Michael battered parts of Mexico and Cuba with powerful winds and drenching rains on Sunday as it churned in the Caribbean on a path that could see it slam into the US Gulf Coast later this week with hurricane force, officials said.

The storm was packing maximum sustained winds of 80kmh as it moved north on a path between Cozumel in southeastern Mexico and the western tip of Cuba, the Miami-based US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

Michael is forecast to be a hurricane on Monday night or Tuesday and approach the US Gulf Coast on Wednesday, making landfall along Florida's northern Panhandle region, it said.

The storm is then forecast to move northeast along the Atlantic Coast and batter the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence last month. That hurricane killed at least 50 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.

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Outer bands from Michael are expected produce as much as 10cm of rain through Tuesday in the Florida Keys, one of several areas in the state devastated by Hurricane Irma last year.

Governor Rick Scott will issue an executive order declaring a state of emergency in the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend as the state braces for the storm, his office said on Sunday.

"As we continue to monitor this storm's northward path toward Florida, it is critically important that our communities have every available resource to keep everyone safe and prepared," he said in a statement.

In Cuba on Sunday, Michael was expected to dump as much as 30cm of rain in western parts of the island.

"This rainfall could lead to life-threatening flash floods and mudslides in areas of mountainous terrain," the NHC said.

The Commodity Weather Group said on Sunday some oil rigs in the area may be evacuated as a precaution, which may slow down operations but was not likely cause much interruption.

The Gulf of Mexico is home to 17 per cent of US crude oil and 5 per cent of natural gas output daily, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

More than 45 per cent of the nation's refining capacity is located along the US Gulf Coast, which also is home to 51 per cent of total US natural gas processing capability.

REUTERS