BELIZE CITY, Belize — Tropical Storm Alex was gaining strength today as it swirled across the Gulf of Mexico on a path toward Mexico’s northeastern coast that threatened to push oil from the massive spill farther inland.
The tropical storm’s center wasn’t expected to approach the area of the 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 today.
Forecasters also said Alex could become a hurricane later in the day or tomorrow.
Its heavy rains were expected to begin lashing the Mexican states of Tamaulipas or Veracruz around midweek.
Alex’s heavy rains 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 60 mph. But it weakened into a depression yesterday 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 50 mph early today.
The hurricane center said rains from Alex will keep falling on southern Mexico and Guatemala until tomorrow 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.
Authorities in both 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 yesterday.
The country apparently avoided major damage, and emergency coordinator 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.
Now all eyes are on the Gulf of Mexico.
When Alex became the first named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, officials immediately worried what effect it could have on efforts to contain the millions of gallons of crude spewing into the northeastern part of the Gulf.
A cap has been placed over the blown-out undersea well, directing some of the oil to a surface ship where it is being collected or burned. Other ships are drilling two relief wells, projected to be done by August, which are considered the best hope to stop the leak.
Alex was centered about 75 miles west of Campeche, Mexico, early today and was moving northwest near 6 mph. The center said its rains could reach Tamaulipas or Veracruz late tomorrow or Wednesday.