Alex hits Mexico’s Gulf coast as Cat 2 hurricane
SAN FERNANDO, Mexico (AP) – Hurricane Alex made landfall on Mexico’s Gulf coast as a powerful Category 2 storm Wednesday, spawning tornadoes in nearby Texas, forcing evacuations in both countries and whipping up high waves that frustrated oil-spill cleanup efforts and pushed crude onto beaches.
Alex hit a relatively unpopulated stretch of coast in Mexico’s northern Tamaulipas state about 110 miles (180 kms) south of Brownsville, Texas, and was pushing inland at 10 mph (17 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Its heavy rains and 110 mph (160 kph) winds lashed Mexican fishing villages, whose residents fled inland to the town of San Fernando on buses and in the back of pickup trucks.
Hundreds of people filled a storm shelter in an auditorium in San Fernando.
“We didn’t bring anything but these clothes,” said evacuee Carolina Sanchez, 21, motioning to two small plastic bags at her feet, as her 3-year-old sister Belen Sanchez Gonzalez clutched a purple and white stuffed toy poodle at the storm shelter. Her father, a fisherman, was one of many coastal residents who stayed behind to keep watch on their homes and possessions.
Engineer Abel Ramirez of San Fernando’s Civil Protection and Fire Department said seven fishing villages, with a combined population of about 5,000, were being evacuated.
The civil defense office in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, said Alex’s rains had already flooded around 30 neighborhoods there and officials were using small boats to rescue some residents.
Alex spawned two tornadoes around Brownsville, including one that flipped over a trailer. Officials also closed the causeway to South Padre Island, a popular vacation getaway off the Texas coast, and 9-foot waves were reported on the island’s beach.
But officials in Texas said the U.S. state had been spared a direct hit. No injuries or severe damage were immediately reported.
The National Weather Service downgraded its storm warning for the Texas coast from hurricane to tropical storm strength.
More than 1,000 people in low-lying Hidalgo and Cameron counties fled to storm shelters. More than 1,000 homes were without power late Wednesday, with the biggest outage caused not by the storm but by a car that ran into a utility pole, American Electric Power spokesman Andy Heines said.
At least 100 families took shelter in a Brownsville high school.
Sergio Gonzales, 18, arrived with nine other family members after his father decided their house may not survive the flood.
Gonzales didn’t agree with his dad.
“I think it’s just going to be a normal one,” he said.
The main threat as the hurricane begins to fall apart over land will be tornadoes, which could last another day or two, hurricane center meteorologist Chris Landsea said.
The other big threat is rain, Landsea said. Parts of Mexico and Texas are expected to get 6-12 inches of rain, which could cause flash flooding farther west, away from the coast, he said.
The storm was far from the Gulf oil spill, but cleanup vessels were sidelined by the hurricane’s ripple effects. Six-foot waves churned up by the hurricane splattered beaches in Louisiana, Alabama and Florida with oil and tar balls.
It was the first June hurricane in the Atlantic since 1995, according to the hurricane center.
Many in the border cities braved the growing rains: Commuters struggled to get to work, pedestrians crossed the bridge connecting Matamoros and Brownsville and newspaper hawkers manned the less-flooded intersections.
Government workers stuck duct tape in X’s across the windows of the immigration office at the main downtown bridge in Matamoros on Tuesday. Trucks cruised slowly down residential streets carrying large jugs of drinking water and cars packed supermarket parking lots.
Flash floods also forced hundreds of evacuations in the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, but hurricane specialist Eric Blake said those rains were only indirectly related to Alex and possibly the residual effects of Hurricane Darby, which has dissipated in the Pacific.
Three people, including a 5-year-old child, were killed when heavy rains and winds brought down a wall over their wooden house in Acapulco, state Civil Protection authorities said.
Texas also watched Alex’s outer bands warily. Alex was expected to bring torrential rains to a Rio Grande delta region that is ill-suited – economically and geographically – to handle it.
Texas residents had been preparing for the storm for days, readying their homes and businesses and stocking up on household essentials. But concerns eased as the storm headed farther south toward Mexico.
Engineers were watching the levees in south Texas as the storm approached the area.
Scientists in Texas were also monitoring a buoy system that records the Gulf’s water directions and velocity every half-hour. That information will determine where the oil could spread, should it approach Texas as tar balls on the beach, said Texas land commissioner Jerry Patterson.
Oil rigs and platforms in the path of the storm’s outer bands were evacuated, and President Barack Obama issued a pre-emptive federal disaster declaration for southern Texas counties late Tuesday.
The three oil rigs and 28 platforms evacuated are not part of the Gulf oil spill response.
In Louisiana, the storm pushed an oil patch toward Grand Isle and uninhabited Elmer’s Island, dumping tar balls as big as apples on the beach. Cleanup workers were kept at bay by pouring rain and lightning that zigzagged across the dark sky. Boom lining the beach had been tossed about, and it couldn’t be put back in place until the weather cleared.
“The sad thing is that it’s been about three weeks since we had any big oil come in here,” marine science technician Michael Malone said. “With this weather, we lost all the progress we made.”