By Jane Sutton
MIAMI (Reuters) - A weather disturbance in the central Gulf of Mexico was likely to develop into Tropical Storm Debby in the next day or two, forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center said on Saturday.
The broad mass of low pressure and heavy thunderstorms had begun to develop a center of circulation about 275 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, the forecasters said.
It would become a tropical storm if those swirling winds reach a sustained speed of 39 miles per hour (63 km per hour), and a buoy had already measured gusts near that level.
"This system has a high chance, 90 percent, of becoming a tropical cyclone as it moves slowly northward during the next 48 hours," the forecasters said.
"Tropical storm watches or warnings could be required for a portion of the northern Gulf Coast over the weekend and interests in this area should continue to monitor the progress of this (low-pressure system)."
Forecasting models diverged widely on its potential path. Some took it east over northern Florida while others swung it north toward the Alabama-Mississippi border or west over Texas or Mexico.
Energy companies began shutting in production and evacuating workers from oil and gas platforms on Friday in the Gulf of Mexico, which is home to 20 percent of U.S. oil production and 6 percent of natural gas output.
A hurricane hunter plane was scheduled to check out the disturbance on Saturday. The disturbance has brought heavy rain to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, western Cuba and southern Florida over the past few days and forecasters said there was a potential for local flooding in those areas.
(Reporting By Jane Sutton; Editing by Vicki Allen)