Palm trees move in the wind as a man walks near shore in Chetumal, Mexico, on Saturday. Tropical storm Alex was gaining strength over the Gulf of Mexico on Monday as it headed toward Mexico's northeastern coast. (Gerardo Garcia/Reuters)Tropical storm Alex gained strength Monday on the way to hurricane status as it swirled across the Gulf of Mexico on a path toward Mexico's northeastern coast.
The tropical storm's centre wasn't expected to approach the area of the BP oil spill off Louisiana's coast, said Stacy Stewart, senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. But Alex's outer wind field could push oil from the spill farther inland and hinder operations in the area, Stewart said early Monday.
Forecasters also said late Monday that Alex is expected to become a hurricane on Tuesday. Hurricane warnings were issued by the hurricane centre for parts of Texas and by the Mexican government for northeastern Mexico.
Heavy rains are expected to begin lashing the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Veracruz around midweek.
Storm causes floods
Alex caused flooding and mudslides that left at least four people dead in Central America over the weekend, though Belize and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula appeared largely unscathed.
It made landfall in Belize on Saturday night as a tropical storm with winds at 95 km/h. But it weakened into a depression on Sunday as it crossed the Yucatan Peninsula. Once over the warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Alex quickly grew back into a tropical storm and had winds of up to 85 km/h early Monday.
The hurricane centre said rains from Alex will keep falling on southern Mexico and Guatemala until Tuesday and warned of life-threatening floods and mudslides.
The heavy rains prompted a landslide in northwestern Guatemala that dislodged a large rock outcropping, killing two men who had taken shelter from the storm underneath, according to the national disaster-response agency.
In El Salvador, Civil Protection chief Jorge Melendez said two people were swept away by rivers that jumped their banks. About 500 people were evacuated from their homes.
Community cut off
Authorities in Guatemala and Belize were keeping an eye on rising river levels. One bridge in western Belize was swamped entirely, cutting off a remote Mennonite community.
Hundreds of Belize residents and tourists who had fled low-lying islands for shelters on the mainland began returning on Sunday. The country apparently avoided major damage, and emergency co-ordinator Noreen Fairweather said on national radio that there were no reports of injuries.
"The weather came, but it was just normal rain, little gusts of wind and nothing much," Belize City resident Miguel Chan told APTN. "We have had normal storms that were more heavier than this."
There were no immediate reports of damage to Mexico's resort-studded Caribbean coast.
Alex was centred about 115 kilometres west of Campeche, Mexico, earlier Monday.