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Record-setting storm disrupts Gulf of Mexico industries; Hurricane season is off to a strong start as Debby puts coastal states on alert

MIAMI -- Tropical Storm Debby formed in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday, interfering with oil and gas production and putting officials on alert for flooding and strong winds from Texas to Florida.

It was the first time four tropical storms have been recorded before July 1 during the Atlantic hurricane season since record-keeping began in 1851.

At least one tornado linked to the storm touched down in southwest Florida, but no injuries were reported. The storm's outer rain bands were pounding parts of the state.

Debby was about 220 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi River, with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph.

The center of Debby was expected to linger over the northern Gulf during the next few days with no landfall in the immediate forecast.

While the storm's track is far from certain, the National Hurricane Center predicts Debby will skirt the Louisiana coast and head west toward Texas. Some strengthening is expected over the next couple days.

Forecasters warned of up to 6 inches of rain along the coast, with isolated amounts of 10 inches.

Debby forced the suspension of 8 percent of the region's oil and gas production.

The government reported that nine production platforms and one drilling rig were evacuated. The suspended crude production amounts to about 2 percent of U.S production and about 0.1 percent of global production. The reduced production is not expected to impact oil prices unless the storm strengthens and forces more production platforms to close.

A tropical storm warning was issued for part of the southeast Louisiana coast. Officials there have been monitoring the weather closely for the last several days. Some low-lying areas close to the coast flood easily in rough weather.

"We've already seen higher tides than usual," said Angela Rains, manager of the Terrebonne Levee District.

Near the mouth of the Mississippi southeast of New Orleans, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said officials were making preparations to protect the main highway from tidal flooding.

A tornado touched down in Collier County in southwest Florida, and forecasters warned that other twisters were possible.

Several homes were damaged and tree limbs were down, the Naples Daily News reported.

"This is quite common with this type of storm," senior hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart with the National Hurricane Center said of the twisters. "They tend to not be very large or long-lived, which can be difficult to detect on radar. So people need to keep an eye on the sky."

Out in the Gulf, Anadarko Petroleum removed all non-essential personnel. It expected to close four facilities in the central and eastern Gulf by Saturday. Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell and Marathon Oil said non-essential personnel were being removed, but production was not being affected. ExxonMobil reported that its operations were unaffected.

Alberto was the first storm this year. It formed off the South Carolina coast May 19, almost two weeks before the hurricane season officially began June 1.

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