BELIZE CITY – Tropical Storm Alex moved into the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday after weakening to a depression as it swirled across Belize and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, dumping rains that left at least four people dead across the region.
Alex is expected to regain strength in the coming days as it moves over warmer waters in the Gulf and possibly become a hurricane headed toward Mexico’s Caribbean coast, well away from the area where BP PLC is trying to stop a massive oil leak, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
On Sunday, Alex soaked parts of Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula with torrential downpours, forcing hundreds of tourists to flee resort islands. Winds were at 60 mph when the storm made landfall in Belize on Saturday night but had decreased to 35 mph by Sunday.
The hurricane center said Alex is expected to become a tropical storm again on Monday. Rains will likely keep falling on southern Mexico and Guatemala until Monday afternoon.
The heavy rains caused a landslide in northwestern Guatemala that dislodged a large rock outcropping, killing two men who had taken shelter underneath from the storm, according to the national agency.
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. Seven homes in the Belize River Valley, outside Belize City, had their roofs blown off, and at least one structure collapsed.
Belize officials opened storm shelters in the island tourist resort of San Pedro, as 1,400 people fled for the mainland by plane and by boat.
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 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.
For the time being, the storm appears likely to miss the oil-slicked region and make landfall in Mexico, apparently in Tamaulipas state – but meteorologists warned that a storm’s track can quickly change.