Alex, the first named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, weakened to a tropical depression as it moved across the Yucatan Peninsula and into the Gulf of Mexico today on a track that may keep it away from the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
The storm was moving into the southwestern Gulf as of 4:30 p.m. Miami time, according to an advisory from the U.S. National Hurricane Center, and was forecast to return to tropical storm status tomorrow, regaining the strength it lost while over land.
The center’s official storm track predicts Alex will then curve west toward Mexico City, rather than north and east into the worst of the BP Plc oil spill, though forecasters warn it’s too early to say for sure.
“Odds are it is not an issue for the cleanup,” Tom Kines, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc., said in a telephone interview today. He said the storm is likely to intensify to a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale before making its final landfall near Tampico on June 30.
Sustained winds were about 35 miles (56 kilometers) per hour and it was moving west-northwest at 9 mph, the hurricane center reported.
Jim Rouiller, senior energy meteorologist for Planalytics Inc., a weather adviser to energy interests, said he recommends preparing for “the worst case scenario.” He said it was likely that Alex would head north in the Gulf, becoming a hurricane June 29 and possibly a major hurricane by July 1.
“As of this morning, I grow more concerned Alex will shift his gun sights further up the Texas coast and possibly into southwestern Louisiana during the last half of this week,” Rouiller said in an e-mail today. “This potential track would send a much higher surge of sea water into the oil spill area, along with possibly shutting down containment efforts that would result in a resumption of free-flowing oil into the Gulf.”
The Gulf of Mexico measures about 500 miles from north to south between the Mississippi River delta and the Yucatan, and about 1,000 miles west to east, according to the website of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation in Corpus Christi, Texas.
U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the government’s national incident commander for the spill, said officials are monitoring Alex carefully.
“We understand that (the storm) is moving westerly at this point, and does not threaten the site,” Allen said yesterday during a conference call. “But we know that these tracks can change and are paying very close attention to it.”
About 6,000 vessels involved in cleanup, oil-recovery and relief drilling efforts would begin evacuating when the National Weather Service forecasts gale-force winds at the well site, Allen said. BP said today it was evacuating non-essential workers from three rigs in the western Gulf as a precaution.
Rainfall amounts of as much as 8 inches (20 centimeters) may fall over the Yucatan, southern Mexico, northern Guatemala, most of Honduras and Belize, the hurricane center said. As much as 15 inches may fall in mountainous areas, potentially causing “life-threatening flash floods and landslides.”
Some 1,500 tourists and residents were evacuated from Belize’s resort island of San Pedro, Timrose Augustine, a coordinator for the national emergency agency, said by telephone. At least five landslides were reported in Guatemala, washing out stretches of highway, according to David de Leon, a spokesman for the national disaster agency.
A storm system receives a name when sustained winds reach 39 mph and becomes a hurricane when those winds hit 74 mph. The Atlantic season, which runs from June 1 through Nov. 30, is important to the energy and agriculture industries because of the potential impact of storms on production areas.
Florida is the world’s largest orange grower after Brazil. The Gulf is home to about 30 percent of U.S. oil and 12 percent of its natural gas production. It also has seven of the 10 busiest U.S. ports, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
Forecasters have been predicting an active season, which runs from June 1 through Nov. 30. In May, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration forecast 14 to 23 named storms. The most active season on record was 2005, when 28 storms formed, including Hurricane Katrina, which caused New Orleans levees to fail, flooding the city and killing more than 1,800 people.
This month, Colorado State University researchers boosted their forecast, calling for 18 named storms, 10 of them becoming hurricanes. AccuWeather increased its outlook to 18 to 21 storms from 16 to 18.