Alex hits in Mex­ico, lashes South Texas

100-mph winds whip up waves that push oil and tar along Gulf coast

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE -

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.”

Eric Gay

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.

Eric Gay

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.

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