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Ernesto skirting coast on way to flood-prone area

Mexico Tropical Weath_Bake.jpg

A man inspects marine fenders that were ripped from the docks and dragged to the beach after Hurricane Ernesto made landfall overnight in Mahahual, near Chetumal, Mexico, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012. Marine fenders are used to prevent naval vessels from colliding against each other or against docks, wharves and piers. (AP Photo/Israel Leal) (AP2012)

Tropical Storm Ernesto neared a collision with Mexico's flood-prone southern Gulf coast Thursday after hurling rain across the Yucatan Peninsula but causing little major damage.

Ernesto spun through the southern Gulf of Mexico overnight, across waters dotted with oil rigs operated by the state oil company.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm's sustained winds had increased to about 70 mph after getting over the water. It had grown into a hurricane shortly before landfall Tuesday night near the cruise ship port of Mahahual, but it weakened as it crossed the peninsula.

Forecasters said Ernesto was expected to come ashore in Veracruz state's lush Los Tuxtlas region, roughly 50 miles northwest of oil port of Coatzacoalcos, and it could dump as much as 10 inches of rain, creating the threat of flooding.

At dawn Thursday, it was centered about 40 miles east-northeast of Coatzacoalcos and was moving to the west-southwest at 13 mph.

Officials in Veracruz readied storm shelters, said Victor Hugo Ceron of the state civil defense agency. The port captain for Veracruz city, Enrique Casarrubias, said the port there was closed to smaller vessels. The Carnival Elation cruise ship canceled a Wednesday stop, he added.

Petroleos Mexicanos, the state oil monopoly, said it was closely monitoring the storm, but did not report plans to evacuate any of about 200 oil platforms in the area. The federal Communications and Transportation Department closed two of the three main oil-exporting ports in the Gulf of Mexico because of the stormy conditions.

Ernesto has been the strongest storm to form in the Atlantic Ocean since the hurricane season began June 1, though stronger hurricanes hit Pacific coastal communities in May and June, causing at least three deaths, said David Zelinsky, a meteorologist at the U.S. hurricane center in Miami.

"Up to this point, most of the systems have been relatively weak," he said.

There were no reports of storm deaths or major damage, though Ernesto ripped down billboards, toppled trees and cut electricity as it hit land well south of the region's main resorts of Cancun and the Riviera Maya and then passed near the Mayan ruins of Calakmul.

"In many places the windows were shattered," said Flori Cruz, a 27-year-old cook in Mahahual.

In the Pacific, Hurricane Gilma gained some strength but was not seen as a threat to land. Early Thursday, it was about 730 miles southwest of the southern tip of Mexico's Baja California Peninsula, with maximum sustained winds near 80 mph.