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Alex weakens, but rain pelts northern Mexico

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Hurricane Alex weakened to a tropical storm with 40 mph winds Thursday as it moved farther inland over northeastern Mexico, dumping heavy rains that flooded several areas.

Moreover, southern Texas was warned of twisters. "Isolated tornadoes are possible over portions of extreme southern Texas today," the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Rain from the first named storm of the 2010 Atlantic season flooded about 80 percent of the port city of Matamoros, sent uprooted trees crashing down on parked cars and forced thousands to flee low-lying fishing villages.

Inland in the industrial city of Monterrey, flooding killed three people, washed away chunks of surrounding highways and turned dry desert beds into turbulent rivers.

Zoo animals including buffalo were dragged from their pens as floods swept through the city, and efforts to round them up were delayed by the storm conditions.

Floods sucked a 12-ton statue of Mexico's revered Virgin of Guadalupe off its perch on the bank of the city's normally dry Santa Catarina river.

"The damage is enormous, a river burst its banks and we have people trapped on the roofs of their houses," said Mayor Martin Zamarripa of the town of Hualahuises outside Monterrey.

In Matamoros, city official Saul Hernandez Bautista said at least 400 neighborhoods were flooded, some with 12 inches of water and at least 2,500 people were in shelters, mostly people evacuated from lowing lying regions outside the city.

Trees were uprooted and electrical posts were down. Hernandez said there were no known injuries or deaths in the Matamoros area but he did not know about the area farther south where the eye of the storm hit.

"The damages are incalculable. The city is practically under water," Hernandez said. "But the most important thing is that there was no loss of life. We took important and opportune measures to evacuate people."

To the west of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon Gov. Rodrigo Medina de la Cruz said the storm had already dumped 16 inches of rain in some areas. He ordered all schools closed and appealed for people to stay home from all but essential jobs. Medina said at least 2,300 people had been evacuated.

Alex made landfall late Wednesday at Soto La Marina, Mexico. The storm ripped off roofs, flooded streets and forced thousands of people to flee coastal fishing villages in northern Mexico.

Alex was the first and strongest Category 2 hurricane to occur in June since 1966.

Texas spared, Mexico slammed
Alex largely spared Texas, which had prepared for a possible direct hit. While it spawned two tornadoes and caused 1,000 people to evacuated low-lying areas there, state officials reported no injuries or major damages.

Earlier, Alex whipped up high waves that frustrated oil-spill cleanup efforts on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico and delivered tar balls and globs of crude onto already soiled beaches.

The storm made landfall on a relatively unpopulated stretch of coast in Mexico's northern Tamaulipas state, about 110 miles south of Brownsville, Texas, and in Matamoros.

In Mexico, residents of coastal fishing villages fled inland on buses and in pickup trucks to the town of San Fernando as rain pummeled down and winds topped 110 mph. Hundreds of people filled a storm shelter in a town auditorium.

"We didn't bring anything but these clothes," said evacuee Carolina Sanchez, 21, motioning to two small plastic bags at her feet, as her 3-year-old sister Belen Sanchez Gonzalez clutched a purple and white stuffed toy poodle at the storm shelter.

Her father, a fisherman, was one of many coastal residents who stayed behind to keep watch on their homes and possessions.

Engineer Abel Ramirez, of San Fernando's Civil Protection and Fire Department, said seven fishing villages, with a combined population of about 5,000, were evacuated.

Alex spawned two tornadoes around Brownsville, including one that flipped over a trailer. Officials closed the causeway to South Padre Island, a popular vacation getaway off the Texas coast, and 9-foot waves were reported on the island's beach.

More than 1,000 homes were without power late Wednesday, with the biggest outage caused not by the storm but by a car that ran into a utility pole, American Electric Power spokesman Andy Heines said.

Families huddle in shelter
At least 100 families took shelter in a Brownsville high school.

Sergio Gonzales, 18, arrived with nine other family members after his father decided their house may not survive the flood.

Gonzales didn't agree with his dad. "I think it's just going to be a normal one," he said.

The main threat as Alex falls apart over land will be tornadoes, hurricane center meteorologist Chris Landsea said.

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.

"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."

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 — a couple and their 5-year-old child — were killed when heavy rains and winds brought down a wall on their wooden house in Acapulco, state Civil Protection authorities said.