NEW ORLEANS – Tropical Storm Alex weakened to a depression Sunday hours after making landfall in this popular tourist destination, but is expected to regain strength in the coming days as it moves out over warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
Although Alex could eventually become a hurricane, it is projected to touch down on the Mexican coastline later this week well away from the area where BP PLC is trying to stop a massive oil leak, the U.S. Hurricane Center in Miami said.
On Saturday, Alex swept through the Yucatan Peninsula, northern Guatemala, and Belize with torrential downpours, forcing hundreds of tourists to flee resort islands. Winds were at 60 mph (95 kph) when the storm made landfall in Belize on Saturday night but had decreased to 35 mph (55 kph) by Sunday morning.
Alex was centered about 85 miles south of Campeche, Mexico.
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.
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 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, somewhere near the border of Tamaulipas and Veracruz states -- but meteorologists warned that a storm's track can quickly change.
Meanwhile in the Pacific, two storms were far offshore 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, 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 south-southwest of Zihuatanejo, Mexico.