By Jane Sutton
MIAMI (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Debby formed in the central Gulf of Mexico on Saturday and storm warnings were posted for part of the Louisiana coast, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Debby was centered about 220 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River. The storm had top winds of 50 miles per hour (81 km per hour) and was expected to strengthen slowly, nearing hurricane strength by Thursday.
Debby was moving slowly north and was expected to turn to the west on Sunday. On the hurricane center's projected path, it would skirt the Louisiana coast and take aim for Texas.
A tropical storm warning was issued for the Louisiana coast from the Pearl River west to Morgan City, excluding the city of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain. Residents were warned to expect storm conditions within 36 hours.
Forecasting models still diverged on its potential path, with a few still swinging it toward Florida.
Energy companies were shutting down production and evacuating workers from oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, which is home to 20 percent of U.S. oil production and 6 percent of natural gas output.
The U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which oversees oil and gas activity in the Gulf, said 7.8 percent of daily oil output and 8.16 percent of daily natural gas output were shut down.
(Additional reporting by Kristen Hays in Houston; Editing by Paul Simao)