Tropical Storm Maria weakens as it heads toward Puerto Rico

MIAMI (AP) — A barely Tropical Storm Maria headed toward the Lesser Antilles at the eastern end of the Caribbean, but was expected to weaken to a tropical depression or disintegrate into a tropical wave later Saturday.

Maria's maximum sustained winds were near 40 mph, with some slight strengthening possible, the Hurricane Center said.

It was moving toward the west-northwest near 15 mph and was located about 25 miles northeast of Antigua.

Authorities on Mexico's Gulf coast prepared for Tropical Storm Nate's arrival Saturday while air and sea search teams hunted for 10 oil workers missing since abandoning a disabled research vessel in stormy waters.

Nate was still moving toward the coast very slowly, but was expected to pick up some speed Saturday, said the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. Forecasters said the storm would approach the coast Sunday, mostly likely just below hurricane strength.

Mexico's state oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, had two ships searching for the missing oil workers. A port official said Friday that they included four Americans, four Mexicans, one from Kazakhstan and a 10th of unconfirmed nationality.

The workers, employees of Houston-based Geokinetics Inc., called for help Thursday afternoon after leaving a vessel known as a liftboat, the Trinity II, on an enclosed life raft.

"We're deeply concerned about the incident in the Gulf of Mexico involving our employees and others who had to abandon a disabled liftboat due to conditions brought about by Tropical Storm Nate," Geokinetics spokeswoman Brenda Taquino said.

A liftboat can lower legs to the sea floor and then elevate itself above the water level. This one was being used as a recording vessel and housing for the crew, and it was in waters about 25 feet (8 meters) deep.

Randy Reed, president of the vessel's owner, Trinity Liftboat Services LLC in New Iberia, Louisiana, was unavailable for comment Friday, a person answering the phone at his office told The Associated Press. But Reed told the Advertiser newspaper in Louisiana that the rescue effort involved boats, helicopters and aircraft conducting a grid search of the area where the workers went missing in the Bay of Campeche.

"We're optimistic. They're good seamen. They're professionals at what they do," Reed said. "The life raft is out there, we just haven't found it yet. ... We're all working diligently to locate the raft so we can locate our loved ones."

The captain of the 94-foot (28.6-meter), 185-ton Trinity II reported that the workers were abandoning the vessel about midday Thursday, and a ship several miles (kilometers) away also reported seeing the crew enter the life raft.

But there had been no communication since.

The Mexican navy said Friday night that sailors had reached the Trinity II and found no crew. It said it had a plane, three helicopters and four boats searching for them.

Taquino said the life raft was a sealed capsule containing enough food and water to last for several days, but there was no way to communicate with it.

Tropical Storm Nate was drifting slowly west at about 6 mph (9 kph) over the southern Gulf on Saturday with maximum sustained winds of near 50 mph (85 kph), the Hurricane Center said. It was centered about 140 miles (230 kilometers) east-northeast of Veracruz. Forecasters said it was expected to hit Mexico's Gulf coast Sunday possibly as a hurricane.

A tropical storm warning was declared along the coast from Tampico to Veracruz. A hurricane watch also was posted for the coast, meaning there was a chance the storm could strengthen into a hurricane.

Pemex said it had evacuated 473 workers from platforms off the coasts of the Gulf coast states of Veracruz and Tamaulipas. Mexico's Gulf ports were closed to navigation.

Out in the Atlantic, Hurricane Katia was moving northeast over open water after passing between the U.S. and Bermuda. Despite not hitting land, the hurricane center said large swells generated by the Category 1 storm would continue affecting the U.S. East Coast and Bermuda.

Katia was centered midway between Bermuda and Nova Scotia and was moving northeast near 53 mph (85 kph). It had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph (130 kph). The long-term forecast indicated it could reach Scotland as a storm on Monday.