By Enrique Andres Pretel
SAN JOSE (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Nate killed at least 10 people in Central America on Thursday as it pummeled the region with heavy rain while heading toward Mexico's Caribbean resorts and the U.S. Gulf Coast where it could strike as a hurricane this weekend.
Emergency officials in Costa Rica reported that at least six people were killed due to the lashing rain, including two children. The government declared a state of emergency, closing schools and all other non-essential services.
Highways were closed due to mudslides and power outages were also reported in parts of country, where authorities deployed more than 3,500 soldiers.
"We can assure you that the number of displaced people is going to greatly increase," Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis told a news conference.
In Nicaragua, at least four people died and six others were reported missing amid severe rain, the country's vice president, Rosario Murillo, told state media.
Officials shut schools due to the rainfall, which the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) said could be as much as 20 inches (51 cm) in some isolated areas.
Nate is predicted to strengthen into a Category 1 hurricane by the time it hits the U.S. Gulf Coast on Sunday, NHC spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.
At about 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) Nate was some 40 miles (64 km) west-southwest of the Honduran town of Puerto Lempira, moving north-northwest at 10 mph (16 kph), the NHC said.
Blowing maximum sustained winds of 40 mph (64 kph), Nate was expected to move across northeastern Nicaragua and eastern Honduras on Thursday and enter the northwestern Caribbean Sea on Thursday night.
The storm will be near hurricane intensity when it approaches Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula late on Friday, where up to 8 inches (20 cm) of rain were possible, the NHC said.
Nate is expected to produce 6 to 10 inches (15 to 25 cm)of rain in southern Honduras, with up to 20 inches (50 cm) in some areas, the NHC said. The storm was forecast to dump 3-6 inches(7.5-15 cm) of rain in northern Costa Rica, with up to 10 inches (25 cm) in some areas, it added.
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.
"The threat of the impact is increasing, so folks along the northern Gulf Coast should be paying attention to this thing," the NHC's Feltgen said.
In Mississippi, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to release as a precautionary measure 40 million gallons (151 million liters) of acidic water from storage ponds at a Pascagoula waste site.
The release to a drainage bayou is intended to prevent a greater spill during the storm, the EPA said, adding there are no anticipated impacts to the environment.
Major Gulf of Mexico offshore oil producers including Chevron , BP plc , Exxon Mobil Corp , Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Statoil were shutting in production or withdrawing personnel from their offshore Gulf platforms, they said.
About 14.6 percent of U.S. Gulf of Mexico oil production and 6.4 percent of natural gas production was offline on Thursday, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said.
(Reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel in San Jose, Oswaldo Rivas in Managua, Elida Moreno in Panama City, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Nelson Renteria in San Salvador, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City, Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City.; Additional reporting by Nallur Sethuraman and Arpan Varghese in Bengaluru; Writing by David Alire Garcia and Bernie Woodall; Editing by Alistair Bell and Sandra Maler)