Gulf Coast residents were on watch and oil companies evacuated hundreds of nonessential workers as forecasters said Thursday that a storm system now off Florida could strengthen as it moves west.

All weather models project the storm, which was located in the Gulf of Mexico off southwest Florida, would make landfall between southeastern Louisiana and the western Florida Panhandle during the next few days after crossing the warm Gulf waters where it should gain strength.

This graphic shows two possible scenarios for development of a system of disturbed weather in the Gulf of Mexico.

The National Hurricane Center was sending an aircraft into the system later Thursday to get more precise data. Should it become a tropical storm, the system would be named Jerry. A tropical storm packs winds of 39 to 73 miles per hour.


The National Weather Service said the low-pressure area could affect southeast Louisiana and south Mississippi Friday night or Saturday. Higher-than-normal tides and coastal flooding were possible Friday into Saturday, the service said.

Models showed possible tracks across the Gulf Coast, with Louisiana and the New Orleans area in the middle of the extreme ends of those tracks, said meteorologist Phil Grigsby.

Crisis action team ready

Louisiana put a crisis action team in place Wednesday evening as a precaution, said Mark Smith, a state spokesman.

In New Orleans, emergency preparedness officials urged residents to begin making evacuation plans in case the system develops into a tropical storm or worse.

"We want citizens to understand their personal responsibility of developing their own plan," said Col. Terry Ebbert, the city's homeland security director. He urged them to buy supplies and be ready to care for themselves.

He said the city would not evacuate, and he and the city's director of emergency preparedness urged residents living in federally issued trailers to seek shelter with family or friends or in a motel if a storm threatened.

The trailers are a concern, in New Orleans and across hurricane-ravaged south Louisiana, because they aren't made to withstand strong winds that a tropical storm might produce. Officials in several parishes said they had plans in place to evacuate and shelter residents of FEMA trailers, if necessary.

In New Orleans, Ebbert said it's possible that 6,000 people could have nowhere else to go and need shelter and that the city would be ready to manage "whatever number" they might get. The city is working with the Red Cross and has supplies stored and ready, he said.

Shelter details would not be released until Friday - and then, only if a storm develops, he said. He encouraged residents to register for emergency alerts through the city's phone system or via the city's Web site.

In Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish, portions of which were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, nervous residents were calling local officials for any news.

Since Katrina, "people are gun-shy, and they're going to call, which is good," said Phillip Truxillo, Plaquemines' emergency management director. "They're supposed to be monitoring and watching."

If a tropical storm threatened, residents in federally issued trailers would be evacuated to an auditorium and high school, Truxillo said.

On Wednesday, parish workers were checking to see that drains were clear of debris and picking up trash or other loose debris, he said.

Oil workers flown out

The weather system also led oil companies to fly workers off of offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Just over a quarter of the Gulf of Mexico's daily oil production had been closed off Thursday as forecasters kept an eye on an area of disturbed weather that could develop into a tropical depression.

The federal Minerals Management Service said that personnel had been evacuated from five of the 834 staffed production platforms in the Gulf, while three of the 89 drilling rigs had been evacuated.

"We're pulling the nonessential staff to free up the choppers (helicopters) in case we need them, should a significant storm materialize," a spokesman for Total said.

Shell Oil evacuated 700 workers, while Anadarko, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Marathon Oil also said they were removing nonessential workers.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 temporarily knocked out a quarter of U.S. crude and fuel production, toppling offshore platforms, wrecking undersea pipelines, flooding coastal refineries and sending energy prices to then-record highs.

The companies were carrying out the evacuations because the disturbance could rapidly develop, said a meteorologist with Weather Research Center in Houston.

"It could go directly through some large oil fields," said Weather Research Center President Jill Hasling. Because it formed quickly and so close to the gulf, she added, "you don't have the luxury of ... storms that you can watch for two weeks" as they develop.