VILLA HERMOSO, Mexico — Hurricane warnings were posted Monday for a stretch of Gulf coast in southern Texas and northern Mexico as Tropical Storm Alex gained strength and appeared on track to become a hurricane before it makes landfall later this week.
Forecasters said the storm's path could push oil from the huge Gulf oil spill farther inland and disrupt cleanup efforts.
Alex was swirling through the Gulf of Mexico with winds near 65 mph (100 kph) Monday night on a path that would take it very near the Mexico-U.S. border sometime late Wednesday, said the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida. The storm is expected to become a hurricane Tuesday.
Conditions late Monday afternoon led the center to believe the storm will be less powerful than previously predicted but still likely to gain hurricane strength, forecaster Todd Kimberlain said.
Tropical storm-force winds extended up to 70 miles (110 kilometers) from the storm's center, and Alex was moving toward the north near 5 mph (7 kph).
Heavy rains in Mexico's southern Gulf coast state of Tabasco forced the evacuation of about 300 families from communities near the Usumacinta river.
The hurricane warnings extend from Baffin Bay, Texas south across the mouth of the Rio Grande river to La Cruz, Mexico.
The tropical storm's center wasn't expected to approach the area of the oil spill off Louisiana's coast, said Stacy Stewart, senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center. But Alex's outer wind field could push oil from the spill farther inland and hinder operations in the area, Stewart said early Monday.
The hurricane center said Alex is expected to produce 5 to 10 inches of rainfall over portions of northeastern Mexico and southern Texas over the next few days. It warned of a dangerous storm surge along the coast near and to the north of where the storm makes landfall.
Alex caused flooding and mudslides that left at least five people dead in Central America over the weekend, though Belize and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula appeared largely unscathed.
It made landfall in Belize on Saturday night as a tropical storm and weakened into a depression on Sunday as it crossed the Yucatan Peninsula.
Mexico's northern Gulf coast braced for heavy rains, and forecasters said precipitation from Alex would keep falling on southern Mexico and Guatemala until Tuesday, raising the possibility of life-threatening floods and mudslides.
"It is a fact we are going to get very heavy rains," said Gov. Fidel Herrera of the Gulf coast state of Veracruz.
On Sunday, heavy rains prompted a landslide in northwestern Guatemala that dislodged a large rock outcropping, killing two men who had taken shelter from the storm underneath, according to the national disaster-response agency.
In El Salvador, Civil Protection chief Jorge Melendez said three people were swept away by rivers that jumped their banks. About 500 people were evacuated from their homes.
There were no immediate reports of damage to Mexico's resort-studded Caribbean coast.
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 northeastern part of 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.
Alex was centered about 505 miles (810 kms) southeast of Brownsville, Texas, on Monday evening. Its rains could reach Veracruz and the border state of Tamaulipas late Tuesday or Wednesday, the Hurricane Center said.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.