BELIZE CITY, – BELIZE CITY, (AP) — Hundreds of tourists and residents fled low-lying islands off Belize and beachgoers were warned to stay out of the water along Mexico's resort-studded Caribbean coast, as rain from Tropical Storm Alex began lashing the region.
Alex, with maximum sustained winds of about 65 mph (100 kph), was expected to make landfall at Belize by nightfall, cross land and enter the Gulf of Mexico late Sunday. The storm appeared headed west of the massive oil spill in parts of the gulf, but meteorologists warned that a storm's track can quickly change.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Alex was centered just 30 miles (50 kilometers) east-southeast of Belize City on Saturday afternoon. A tropical storm warning was in effect for Belize and Mexico's entire Caribbean coastline up to Cancun.
Belize officials opened storm shelters in the island tourist resort of San Pedro, as some 1,400 people fled for the mainland by plane and by boat. Torrential downpours and heavy winds were reported on offshore islands Saturday afternoon.
Shelters also opened in Belize City, where motorists formed long lines at gas stations and shoppers stocked up on water, canned food and other emergency supplies amid sporadic rain.
Rough seas halted maritime traffic, and Belize City Mayor Zenaida Moya-Flowers went on national radio to urge boaters to make for safe harbor. Nevertheless, she said, emergency plans were well under way and "we are prepared."
A storm surge of 3-5 feet (1-1.5 meters) was expected along the northern coast and offshore islands, national emergency coordinator Noreen Fairweather said.
Moderate rain was falling along Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, and Quintana Roo state authorities said choppy waves made it too dangerous to swim — but otherwise the storm did not pose a significant threat to tourist areas such as Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen and 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.
Meteorologists predict that Alex will likely lose strength as it passes over the Yucatan Peninsula, before picking up steam again over the Gulf of Mexico.
The latest Hurricane Center forecast puts Alex on a track that would take it through the southwestern Gulf and toward landfall around Veracruz or Tamaulipas state in Mexico — possibly as a hurricane.
Hurricane forecaster Jack Bevens said for now, the storm is not expected to hit the spill that has fouled part of the Gulf with somewhere between 69 million gallons (261 million liters) and 132 million gallons (500 million liters) of crude.
He noted, however, that it's too early to say with certainty exactly where Alex will go.
The storm has raised concerns over what might happen to containment efforts if oil company British Petroleum is forced to abandon the area for a while. An armada of ships is working in the Gulf.
A cap has been placed over the blown-out undersea well and it is carrying some of the oil to a surface ship where it is being collected. Some of the oil is being brought to the surface and burned. Other ships are drilling two relief wells, projected to be done by August, and are the best hope to stop the leak.
Meanwhile in the Pacific, two hurricanes were far offshore Saturday and did not pose an immediate threat to land.
Darby, a Category 1 storm, was weakening and had maximum sustained winds near 85 mph (140 kph). Its center was about 310 miles (495 kilometers) south-southwest of Zihuatanejo, Mexico, and it was slowly headed west.
Farther out in the Pacific, Celia, also a Category 1 with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph (130 kph), was moving over cooler water and weakening rapidly. It was about 945 miles (1,520 kilometers) west-southwest of the southern tip of Mexico's Baja California peninsula.
Associated Press writer Gabriel Alcocer in Cancun, Mexico, contributed to this report.