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Hurricane Bill gains strength on Atlantic track

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MIAMI (Reuters) – Hurricane Bill, the first hurricane of the 2009 Atlantic season, revved up quickly as it headed toward Bermuda on Monday, while the remnants of Tropical Storm Ana dissipated without threatening the U.S. Gulf oil patch.

Once a worrisome storm, Ana was little more than a cluster of thunderstorms as it raced through the Caribbean Sea south of Puerto Rico on a track that could take it into the eastern Gulf of Mexico by the end of the week.


Meanwhile, Bill was steering well clear of the U.S. Gulf energy fields on a path that would take it north of the Caribbean islands in the general direction of Bermuda. Forecasters said it would be west of the British territory by Saturday morning.

Energy markets quaver at Gulf storms because the region produces a quarter of U.S. oil and 15 percent of its natural gas and some forecasters noted that Ana had already regenerated once.

Storm watches and warnings for Ana were dropped and the U.S. National Hurricane Center said the system had lost its swirling wind pattern, but could still bring heavy rainfall to the northern Caribbean islands in its path.

Ana drenched Puerto Rico as it raced toward Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It was about 145 miles east-southeast of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic when the hurricane center issued its final advisory on the system on Monday afternoon.

In the mid-Atlantic, Hurricane Bill's top winds reached 90 mph, just below Category 2 on the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity, the Miami-based hurricane center said.

MAJOR HURRICANE EXPECTED

Forecasters expected it to hit Category 3, with winds of more than 110 mph by Wednesday. Category 3, 4 and 5 storms are considered "major" hurricanes, the most destructive kind.

At 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) Bill was about 975 miles east of the Lesser Antilles and headed west-northwest at 16 mph, the hurricane center said. It was expected to curve more to the north as it nears Bermuda later in the week.

The timing of that turn will determine whether Bermuda is spared a direct hit and whether the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast feels the storm's outer fringes.

Tropical Storm Claudette hit the U.S. Gulf of Mexico coast near Fort Walton Beach in the Florida panhandle early on Monday and quickly weakened to a tropical depression as it moved over southern Alabama.

Florida emergency managers reported sporadic power outages but no widespread damage. They cautioned residents to watch for rising rivers and flooding in low-lying areas.

Claudette, which sprouted with surprising speed on Sunday in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, missed the largest concentration of U.S. oil and gas production platforms, which stretch along the coast from Mobile Bay, Alabama, to Brownsville, Texas.

(Additional reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York and Jane Sutton in Miami; editing by Pascal Fletcher)

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