Alex hits in Mexico, lashes South Texas
100-mph winds whip up waves that push oil and tar along Gulf coast
Forecasters say the first Atlantic hurricane of the season has made landfall in northeastern Mexico.
The Category 2 storm churning in the Gulf of Mexico had sustained winds near 105 mph. The National Hurricane Center says it made landfall about 9 p.m. Wednesday at Soto La Marina along the coast.
The storm is 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.
Hurricane Alex spun off tornadoes, flooded roads and forced thousands of people to evacuate fishing villages.
It was moving west at about 10 mph.
The hurricane’s path eased some worries across the Rio Grande Valley that the storm could hit Texas dead on.
“We dodged a potentially violent storm,” Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos said.
Still, 9-foot waves were reported on South Padre Island. Heavy sheets of rain from Alex’s outer bands lashed Brownsville and South Padre, already soaking some areas with 4 inches of rain by Wednesday afternoon. At a shopping plaza at the foot of a bridge into Mexico, shop owners taped windows and swept water pooled on the sidewalk into the empty streets.
Other stores, meanwhile, began removing plywood boards nailed up just days earlier as Alex shifted farther south.
But there was still danger. Alex spawned two tornadoes around Brownsville, including one that flipped over a trailer. No injuries were reported.
A tornado watch remained in effect for Cameron, Brooks, Kenedy and Hidalgo counties until nightfall.
On South Padre, officials closed the
causeway from the mainland as winds kicked up and rain whipped the popular vacation getaway.
The strongest winds near the center of the storm as of 6 p.m. were 100 mph sustained, topping the Category 2 threshold, according to the National Hurricane Center. Forecasters expected some areas to get up to 20 inches, comparing the potential to Hurricane Dolly in 2008.
In San Fernando, Tamaulipas, seven fishing villages with a combined population of about 5,000 were being evacuated, said Abel Ramirez, an engineer with the city’s Civil Protection and Fire Department.
Hundreds of people filled a storm shelter in an auditorium in San Fernando, about 75 miles north of where Alex made landfall. It was the first June hurricane in the Atlantic since 1995, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
“We didn’t bring anything but these clothes,” said evacuee Carolina Sanchez, 21, motioning to two small plastic bags at her feet, as her 3year-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.
About 80 miles to the north in Brownsville, more than 100 families took shelter at a high school, which was filling up quickly.
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.
As Gonzales prowled the hallways looking for a cot, another family of 11 checked in. Behind them was a family of 12.
“People who live here know when it’s time to come,” said Chris Patterson, the shelter director.
Rio Grande Valley farmers were also bracing for Alex, which could bring them a third straight year of losses.
Luis Ribera, an economist in Weslaco for Texas AgriLife Extension, said that if cotton, corn and grain sorghum fields get hit by the north side of the hurricane where winds and rains are more severe, losses could reach $44 million.
That’s more than the losses for 2008 and 2009 combined, according to Ribera.
Texas residents had been preparing for the storm for days, preparing 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.
The mood was less anxious on South Padre Island. Although hotels and restaurants looked deserted compared with the usual crush of vacationers in the summer, those who stuck around didn’t size up Alex as much of a threat.
One couple renewed their wedding vows on the beach as a few campers reluctantly moved their trailers out of the park hours before a mandatory evacuation deadline.
“It’s June. It’s too soon for hurricanes,” said Gloria Santos of Edinburgh, after hitching her trailer back to her truck.
Jerry Wilson, 50, also didn’t think much of Alex, though he struggled in the fierce gusts to hoist a cloth-tipped pole to clean high-mounted cameras across the island that will let Internet viewers watch Alex’s arrival live online.
“We got two generators and lots of guns and ammo, so we’re not worried about it,” Wilson said.
Gov. Rick Perry said his greatest concern from Hurricane Alex is flooding, but he vowed that the state is prepared for storms this summer as well as any effect from the Gulf oil spill.
Scientists were 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, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said.
Oil rigs and platforms in the path of the storm’s outer bands were evacuated. 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. Booms lining the beach had been tossed about, and they 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.”
Dennis Barrett paddles his kayak down a flooded boulevard Wednesday on South Padre Island as Hurricane Alex, which had reached Category 2 storm status, bore down on the northeastern coast of Mexico. It made landfall about 9 p.m.
On South Padre Island, 9-foot waves and heavy rainfall confounded drivers and pedestrians alike. The causeway to the vacation getaway was closed, and two tornadoes were reported near Brownsville.