Alex weakens to tropical depression over Mexico, expected to regain strength in coming days

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Alex weakens to tropical depression over Mexico

MIAMI — Forecasters say Alex has weakened to a tropical depression, but the cyclone is expected to regain strength in the coming days as it moves out over warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

The U.S. Hurricane Center in Miami said Sunday that Alex could eventually become a hurricane. Its current track has it making landfall again later in the week over Mexico, well away from the area in the Gulf of Mexico where BP PLC is trying to stop a massive oil leak.

On Saturday, Alex swept through the Yucatan Peninsula and Belize with torrential downpours.

Alex is centered about 85 miles (135 kilometers) south of Campeche, Mexico, with maximum sustained winds of about 35 mph (55 kph).

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

BELIZE CITY (AP) — Tropical Storm Alex headed overland toward the Gulf of Mexico early Sunday, drenching Belize, northern Guatemala and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula with torrential rains.

Meteorologists project Alex, which made landfall on Belize’s coast late Saturday, will weaken as it passes over the Yucatan Peninsula but will regain strength once it emerges Sunday afternoon over the Gulf of Mexico, where warm waters could fuel its growth into a hurricane.

According to the most recent predictions, Alex is expected to make a second landfall midweek on the Mexican Gulf coast — far south and west of the region where a deep-sea oil spill is slicking the U.S. coastline.

Hundreds of tourists and residents fled low-lying islands off Belize on Saturday as Alex swept in with torrential downpours. Winds were at 60 mph (95 kph) when the storm made landfall but had decreased to about 40 mph (65 kph) by Sunday morning. Many stocked up on gasoline, water, canned food and other emergency supplies.

Belize officials opened storm shelters in the island tourist resort of San Pedro, as some 1,400 people fled for the mainland by plane and by boat.

Along Mexico’s resort-studded Caribbean coast, officials warned tourists to stay out of rough surf kicked up by the storm. But there were no immediate reports of damage to popular beach destinations such as Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen or Tulum.

State Public Safety director Miguel Ramos Real said 25 fisherman were evacuated and 17 navy personnel were brought to the mainland from a base on Banco Chinchorro, an atoll off the Mexican coast. Three shelters were opened, and ports were closed to small craft.

Now all eyes turn to 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 the millions of gallons of crude spilled in the Gulf — and on efforts to clean up the slick and cap the leak deep below the waves.

A cap has been placed over the blown-out undersea well and it is carrying some of the oil to a surface ship where it is being collected. Some of the oil is being brought to the surface and burned. Other ships are drilling two relief wells, projected to be done by August, and are the best hope to stop the leak.

For the time being, the storm appears likely to miss the oil-slicked region and make landfall in Mexico, somewhere near the border of Tamaulipas and Veracruz states — but meteorologists warned that a storm’s track can quickly change.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said early Sunday that Alex was centered about 105 miles (170 kilometers) west of Chetumal, Mexico. It was speeding to the west-northwest at 12 mph (19 kph).

Meanwhile in the Pacific, two storms were far offshore late Saturday night and did not pose an immediate threat to land.

Once-powerful Celia weakened from a hurricane to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph), the hurricane center said. The storm should fall apart by Sunday.

Darby, which was also a powerful hurricane, has also weakened to a tropical storm. Its center is about 310 miles (500 kilometers) south-southwest of Zihuatanejo, Mexico.

Associated Press writer Gabriel Alcocer in Cancun, Mexico, contributed to this report.

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