MIAMI – The first Atlantic hurricane of the year has strengthened to a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of near 100 mph (155 kph) as it plows ahead toward a collision with the Mexican Gulf coast and south Texas.
The National Hurricane Center says Hurricane Alex will make landfall in northeastern Mexico sometime Wednesday night.
The storm is far from the Gulf oil spill, but cleanup vessels were sidelined by the hurricane's ripple effects. Six-foot waves churned up by the hurricane splattered beaches in Louisiana, Alabama and Florida with oil and tar balls.
Hurricane Alex flooded roads and forced thousands of people to evacuate fishing villages.
The eye was about 55 miles (90 kilometers) northeast of La Pesca, Mexico, and about 105 miles (170 kilometers) south of Brownsville, Texas.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
MATAMOROS, Mexico (AP) — The first Atlantic hurricane of the year plowed ahead toward a collision with the Mexican Gulf coast and south Texas on Wednesday, whipping up high waves that frustrated oil-spill cleanup efforts and delivering tar balls and globs of crude onto already soiled beaches.
Hurricane Alex flooded roads and forced thousands of people to evacuate fishing villages as it bore down on the northeastern Mexican coast.
Braving horizontal sheets of rain, Mexican marines went door-to-door in the small fishing community of Playa Bagdad, trying to evacuate villagers from rickety wooden shacks.
At least 50 people were easily persuaded to get aboard buses to shelters, but holdouts could be seen peeking through windows. One man rebuffed the navy's offer and quickly shut his plywood door.
"We're worried it's going to come hard," said Macedonia Villegas as she and her son readied their house before leaving with the marines. Surf pounded the nearby shore, and a lagoon swelled behind her home.
Emergency-preparedness workers also planned to evacuate 2,500 people from coastal areas east of Matamoros, said Civil Protection Director Saul Hernandez, who added that he was most concerned about 13,000 families in low-lying areas where there are few public utilities or city services.
The storm was far from the Gulf oil spill, but cleanup vessels were sidelined by the hurricane's ripple effects. Six-foot waves churned up by the hurricane splattered beaches in Louisiana, Alabama and Florida with oil and tar balls.
Alex, which had winds of 90 mph (150 kph), was the first June hurricane in the Atlantic since 1995, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.
Bands of heavy rains quickly inundated roads in Matamoros, a worrisome sign with Alex expected to dump as much as 12 inches (30 centimeters) of rain in the region, with perhaps 20 inches (50 centimeters) in isolated areas.
The hurricane could become a Category 2 storm with winds of 96 mph (154 kph) before slamming into the coastline Wednesday evening or early Thursday about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Matamoros and Brownsville, Texas, the Hurricane Center said. The flat, marshy region is prone to flooding.
Many in the border city braved the growing rains: Commuters struggled to get to work, pedestrians crossed the bridge connecting Matamoros and Brownsville and newspaper hawkers manned the less-flooded intersections.
One flooded stretch of road nearly kept Mari Ponce from getting to her job at the Mundo Shelter, which was preparing for 800 people evacuated from fishing communities along the coast.
"It's not going to hit us (directly), but Matamoros is a place that really floods," she said.
Government workers stuck duct tape in X's across the windows of the immigration office at the main downtown bridge in Matamoros on Tuesday. Trucks cruised slowly down residential streets carrying large jugs of drinking water and cars packed supermarket parking lots.
Flash floods also forced hundreds of evacuations in the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, but hurricane specialist Eric Blake said those rains were only indirectly related to Alex and possibly the residual effects of Hurricane Darby, which has dissipated in the Pacific.
Three people, including a 5-year-old child, were killed when heavy rains and winds brought down a wall over their wooden house in Acapulco, state Civil Protection authorities said.
Texas also watched Alex's outer bands warily. Alex was expected to bring torrential rains to a Rio Grande delta region that is ill suited — economically and geographically — to handle it.
Texas residents had been preparing for the storm for days, readying their homes and businesses and stocking up on household essentials. But concerns eased as the storm headed farther south toward Mexico.
Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos said Brownsville and surrounding areas had "dodged a potentially violent storm," though flooding was still a worry. At least 70 residents had already taken shelter at a Brownsville high school.
Engineers were watching the levees in south Texas as the storm approached the area.
On nearby South Padre Island, the mood was less anxious. Although hotels and restaurants looked deserted compared to the crush of vacationers who normally pack the popular vacation spot in the summer, those who stuck around didn't size up Alex as much of a threat.
One couple renewed their wedding vows on the beach as a few campers reluctantly moved their trailers out of the park hours before a mandatory evacuation deadline.
"It's June. It's too soon for hurricanes," said Gloria Santos, of Edinburgh, after hitching her trailer back to her truck.
Jerry Wilson, 50, also didn't think much of Alex, though he struggled in the fierce gusts to hoist a cloth-tipped pole to clean high-mounted cameras across the island that will let Internet viewers watch Alex's arrival live online.
"We got two generators and lots of guns and ammo, so we're not worried about it," Wilson said.
Scientists in Texas were also monitoring a buoy system that records the Gulf's water directions and velocity every half-hour. That information will determine where the oil could spread, should it approach Texas as tar balls on the beach, said Texas land commissioner Jerry Patterson.
Oil rigs and platforms in the path of the storm's outer bands were evacuated, and President Barack Obama issued a pre-emptive federal disaster declaration for southern Texas counties late Tuesday.
The three oil rigs and 28 platforms evacuated are not part of the Gulf oil spill response.
In Louisiana, the storm pushed an oil patch toward Grand Isle and uninhabited Elmer's Island, dumping tar balls as big as apples on the beach. Cleanup workers were kept at bay by pouring rain and lightning that zigzagged across the dark sky. Boom lining the beach had been tossed about, and it couldn't be put back in place until the weather cleared.
"The sad thing is that it's been about three weeks since we had any big oil come in here," marine science technician Michael Malone said. "With this weather, we lost all the progress we made."
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.
As of 4 p.m. CDT Wednesday (2100 GMT), Alex was 105 miles (170 kilometers) southeast of Brownsville and 80 miles (130 kilometers) from La Pesca, Mexico, moving west at about 13 mph (20 kph).
Associated Press Writers Paul J. Weber in South Padre Island, Texas; April Castro in Austin, Texas, and Mary Foster and Tom Breen in Grand Isle, Louisiana, contributed to this report.