BROWNSVILLE, Texas -- Alex became the first Atlantic
hurricane of the season late Tuesday as the storm gained strength
while churning toward the Mexico and Texas coastlines but stayed
mercifully far from the massive Gulf oil spill.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami upgraded the storm to a
Category 1 hurricane shortly before 10 p.m. CDT after measuring
sustained winds of 75 mph. Alex is the first June hurricane in the
Atlantic since 1995, the hurricane center said.
The storm was 255 miles southeast of Brownsville as of 10 p.m.,
moving west at about 9 mph. Forecasters expected it to move
west-northwest and to make landfall Wednesday evening south of
Matamoros, Mexico, about 100 miles south of Brownsville, with winds
of 90 mph or faster.
People on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border began preparing
for the storm days ago. Alex is expected to be at the low-end of
the hurricane strength spectrum, but still will bring torrential
rains to a Rio Grande delta region ill-suited, both economically
and geographically, to handle it.
Passing showers Tuesday quickly pooled along parts of downtown
streets in Brownsville and Matamoros, a worrisome sign with Alex
expected to dump 8 to 12 inches of rain in the region and as much
as 20 inches in isolated areas.
Nearly 400,000 people live in Cameron County at the southernmost
tip of Texas, one of the poorest counties in the U.S. Across the
Rio Grande, Matamoros is a sprawling example of the border's
explosive growth. Colonias, slapdash communities of fragile housing
and little to no infrastructure, cling to its outer edges and house
some 13,000 families in the lowest lying areas.
Farther north in the Gulf of Mexico, BP PLC and the Coast Guard
called ships skimming oil from the water back to shore Tuesday
because Alex was making seas too rough to work. Waves were as high
as 12 feet in some parts of the Gulf. Only the vessels used to
capture or burn oil and gas leaking from the well and to drill two
relief wells were left at sea.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry issued a disaster declaration, allowing
the state to pre-deploy resources to south Texas. President Barack
Obama also issued a federal emergency declaration for 19 south
Texas counties, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency
provide assistance for debris removal and storm-related
In Matamoros, cab driver Alfonso Lopez said he was worried
people would wait until the last minute to take the storm
"A lot of people trust too much that it won't be very bad or it
will change course," he said.
Ana Maria Aguilar, 47, reflected that view as she sat in the
shade of a tree near the Matamoros side of an international bridge
connecting to Brownsville.
"For us, it's a little early; most of us aren't worried because
they (hurricanes) always turn (away)," Aguilar said. "One has
never hit us hard."
Still, she said she would make sure she had food, water,
flashlights and a battery-powered radio at the ready. And if it
gets really bad, she will take her family to a shelter, she said.
Nearby, government workers stuck duct-tape in X's across the
windows of the immigration office at the main downtown bridge.
Trucks cruised slowly down residential streets replacing people's
large drinking water jugs and cars packed supermarket parking lots.
Matamoros Civil Protection Director Saul Hernandez said they
would begin evacuating about 2,500 people from coastal areas east
of the city Wednesday morning. But Hernandez said his real concern
was 13,000 families in 95 of the city's low-lying colonias,
unincorporated areas where residents frequently have no public
utilities or city services.
He urged residents to make their own preparations to ride out
"This is where we live," he said. "We have to confront it."
In Brownsville, crews cleared roadside ditches and placed water
pumps at flood-prone intersections. Windows were boarded up at
government buildings and the University of Texas at
Brownsville-Texas Southmost College, which closed Tuesday
State emergency officials in Austin predicted the storm would
have minimal impact on Texas but were readying equipment for border
residents if needed. Interim Emergency Management Division Chief
Nim Kidd said 100 buses were on standby in the event of
evacuations, 25 of them in McAllen, about 50 miles west of
Brownsville. Twenty-five ambulances also were en route.
Kidd said 100 troopers were on standby, as were 500
first-responders if needed for search-and-rescue operations. More
than 100 boats also were ready to deployed if needed. Kidd stressed
there was no apparent need evacuate in Texas with "contraflow"
evacuation lanes on highways, but emergency management officials
were keeping a close eye on the storm.
The National Weather Service said a hurricane warning was in
effect Tuesday for Cameron, Willacy and Kenedy counties. The
coastal warning covered Baffin Bay and 100 miles south to the mouth
of the Rio Grande.
But even as South Padre Island announced beach closings Tuesday
afternoon, visitors and residents tried to squeeze in as much time
as possible. They sized up Alex as hardly a terror like Hurricane
Dolly, which tore through the island two years ago as a Category 2
A caravan of missionaries from Bob Jones University in South
Carolina played in the rough surf late until an abrupt gust of
fierce wind and rain sent the entire beach scrambling to vehicles.