Hurricane Alex grew into a Category 2 storm as it bore down on the Texas-Mexico coast, heading for an overnight landfall with heavy rains and winds that have shut down one-fourth of the Gulf of Mexico’s crude oil production.
Eight rigs and 74 production platforms were evacuated because of the storm, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement said in a statement on its website. Almost 421,000 barrels of daily oil output were shut-in, or 26 percent of Gulf production, along with 919 million cubic feet of natural-gas output, or 14 percent.
High seas also disrupted efforts to clean up the BP Plc oil spill, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up staging grounds near San Antonio to ferry supplies to those in the storm’s path.
“Alex is a large hurricane, and both hurricane- and tropical storm-force winds extend a great distance from the center,” a National Hurricane Center bulletin said. “Only a small deviation to the north of the track will bring hurricane- force winds to the southern Texas coast.”
The hurricane’s maximum winds grew to 100 miles (160 kilometers) per hour, up from 80 mph earlier today, and it turned west at 12 mph, the center reported at about 6 p.m. Houston time. The storm is 105 miles south of Brownsville, Texas.
A Category 2 storm is the second-weakest on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.
Hurricane-strength winds of at least 74 mph reach out 70 miles from the storm’s eye. Tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph extend 205 miles from the core, about the distance from New York City to Boston, according to the hurricane center. Alex’s rains began pelting the Texas coast by midday.
A slight wobble in Alex’s path and hurricane-force winds would hit Brownsville, said Dennis Feltgen, a hurricane center spokesman.
“They don’t always move in a straight line; it is like a spinning top,” Feltgen said by telephone.
The storm’s track keeps it away from a direct hit on the oil slick from the damaged BP well. However, Alex’s circulation is so large it created waves as high as 10 feet in the spill area, along with severe thunderstorms and heavy rain, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft said at a news conference today.
The rough seas were enough to keep the 510 oil skimmers out of the area and prevent work by a relief ship designed to suck up 25,000 barrels of oil per day, he said. The ship won’t be able to start working until at least July 7.
It has also torn oil booms and sent streamers of oil into parts of the Louisiana coast that have been spared until now, Zukunft said.
The weather will start to become calmer the day after tomorrow, said Brian LaMarre, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Slidell, Louisiana.
“As Alex moves into Mexico, it is going to take a lot of the tropical moisture with it, which will be good news because they can get back to some of their routine operations,” LaMarre said by telephone.
The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, which serves tankers in deep water off eastern Louisiana, halted offloading yesterday because of rough seas, Barb Hestermann, a port spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview. Deliveries are being made to customers from storage and there are no supply disruptions, she said.
The Matagorda ship channel and port in Texas also closed because of Alex, said David Adrian, an officer with the Matagorda Bay Pilots. Pilots stopped boarding ships in Houston, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Operations for loading oil onto smaller ships from large tankers near Galveston, Texas, and the Southwest Pass, the main deepwater entrance to the Mississippi River, were suspended because of rough seas, according to Mike Reardon, a Houston- based vice president at freight derivatives broker Imarex.
Alex is expected to come ashore late tonight or early tomorrow in the northeastern Mexico-southern Texas border area. Tornado warnings were issued for the area around Corpus Christi and Raymondville, Texas, according to the weather service.
“A dangerous storm tide will raise water levels by as much as 4 to 6 feet above ground level along the immediate coast to the north of where the center makes landfall,” according to the hurricane center advisory. “The surge could penetrate inland as far as several miles from the shore.”
The storm is expected to drop as much as 12 inches of rain in northeastern Mexico and southern Texas. Some areas may receive 20 inches of rain, the hurricane center said.
Cities in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas were urged to prepare shelters as needed and consider evacuating islands in the storm’s path, according to a statement by the interior ministry. The storm is being blamed for at least 13 deaths in Central America.
FEMA prepared to offer support for storm victims from a staging area outside San Antonio, including more than 1.1 million meals, 400,000 liters of water, 41,000 tarps and 100 generators, as well as cots, blankets and personal kits.
Yesterday, President Barack Obama declared an emergency in Texas, which allows the state to receive federal aid in dealing with Alex. Texas Governor Rick Perry declared 19 counties a disaster area to free up resources and activated 2,500 National Guard troops, eight helicopters and three C-130 transport planes.
Alex is the earliest Atlantic hurricane since Allison formed June 3, 1995, the Hurricane Center said. Last year, Bill became the season’s first hurricane on Aug. 15. The Atlantic storm season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.
The Gulf Coast is home to 43 percent of operable U.S. refining capacity, according to the Energy Department. Gulf Coast refiners in August and September 2008 lost about 20 percent of production capacity due to hurricanes Ike and Gustav.
The Gulf of Mexico is home to about 31 percent of U.S. oil output, 10 percent of its natural gas production and seven of the 10 busiest ports.