Tropical Storm Alex made landfall late Saturday on Belize's coast, where hundreds of tourists and residents fled low-lying islands ahead of the storm's arrival.
Besides Belize, Alex's torrential rains were drenching Guatemala and Mexico's resort-studded Caribbean coast, where beachgoers were warned to stay out of the water because of rough surf.
The storm, with maximum sustained winds of about 60 mph, was expected to weaken as it pushed its way across the Yucatan Peninsula then regain strength later Sunday as it entered the Gulf of Mexico. Alex 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 about 20 miles northwest of Belize City late Saturday evening.
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."
Too dangerous to swim
A storm surge of 3-5 feet 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.
Expected to miss spill zone
Hurricane forecaster Jack Bevens said for now, the storm is not expected to hit area where the oil spill has fouled the Gulf.
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.
But Reuters reported that Shell Oil Co said non-essential workers from production platforms and drilling rigs in U.S.-regulated areas of Gulf of Mexico farther west were being evacuated on Saturday.
Meanwhile in the Pacific, two storms were far offshore late Saturday night 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 65 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. It's center is about 305 miles south-southwest of Zihuatanejo, Mexico.