By Enrique Andres Pretel
SAN JOSE (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Nate took aim at Caribbean resorts on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula on Friday on its way to the U.S. Gulf Coast where it could strike as a hurricane this weekend after killing at least 22 people in Central America.
Nate was blowing maximum sustained winds of 45 miles per hour (72 kmh) and was about 230 miles (370 km) southeast of the Mexican holiday resort island of Cozumel early on Friday morning, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
The storm is expected to reach the eastern edge of the Yucatan peninsula, home to popular vacation destinations such as Cancun and Playa del Carmen, on Friday evening, the NHC said.
Nate will likely strengthen to a hurricane by the time it hits the northern Gulf of Mexico, it added. Oil and natural gas producers began evacuating staff at U.S. Gulf of Mexico platforms on Thursday.
The storm doused Central America with heavy rains on Thursday, killing at least 11 people in Nicaragua, eight in Costa Rica, two in Honduras and one in El Salvador, local authorities said.
Thousands were forced to evacuate their homes and Costa Rica's government declared a state of emergency, closing schools and all other non-essential services.
Nate is predicted to become a Category 1 hurricane, the weakest category on a five-level scale used by meteorologists, by the time it hits the U.S. Gulf Coast on Sunday.
U.S. officials from Florida to Texas told residents on Thursday to prepare for the storm.
A state of emergency was declared for 29 Florida counties and the city of New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The NHC has issued a hurricane watch from Morgan City, Louisiana, to the Mississippi-Alabama border, including New Orleans, Lake Pontchartrain, and Lake Maurepas.
Nate is expected to produce six to 10 inches (15 to 25 cm) of rain in parts of Honduras and Nicaragua, two to four inches (5 to 10 cm) of rain in eastern Yucatan and western Cuba and three to six inches (8 to 15 inches) of rain in the U.S. central Gulf Coast.
On Friday morning, the storm was moving northwest at 14 miles per hour (23 kmh).
(Writing and additional reporting by Julia Love; Editing by Alistair Bell)