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Hurricane Alex threatens Mexico, Texas

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Hurricane Alex picked up strength in the western Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, heading towards northeastern Mexico and Texas and disrupting oil cleanup operations off the coast of Louisiana.

Alex, which became the first hurricane of the 2010 Atlantic season late Tuesday, was packing winds of 80 miles (130 kilometers) per hour, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said. US President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Texas late Tuesday and ordered federal aid to bolster the local response efforts. Mexican authorities took similar measures and reported one storm-related death.

At 0600 GMT the center of Alex was located 195 miles (315 kilometers) east-southeast of the Mexican coastal town of La Pesca and 255 miles (415 kilometers) southeast of Brownsville, Texas, at the point the US-Mexico border reaches the ocean, the NHC said. The Category One hurricane was tracking “erratically” in a general westward direction at five miles (eight kilometers) per hour and not forecast to turn towards the massive BP oil spill along the US Gulf Coast.

But severe winds from Alex churned up waves that halted clean up operations and threatened to push more of the huge slick onto the coastline. On the forecast track Alex is expected to make landfall late Wednesday or early Thursday in Mexico south of the US-Mexico border, separating Texas and Tamaulipas states, the NHC said.

“Additional strengthening is forecast prior to landfall,” the statement said, but after reaching land it is expected to lose power. Mexico ordered authorities on emergency alert in Tamaulipas state after one woman died when a wall of her home collapsed in the southern state of Oaxaca during driving rain caused by the storm system, officials said.

Obama’s move late Tuesday was a green light for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate all disaster relief efforts, a White House statement said. Texas Governor Rick Perry issued his own state disaster proclamation for 19 counties, allowing Texas to launch preparations such as pre-deploying resources to ensure local communities are ready to respond to the hurricane.

Tornadoes were possible over southern Texas on Wednesday, the NHC statement warned. It said the storm could cause dangerous floods and was set to drench parts of Mexico and Texas with 6-12 inches (15-30 centimeters) of rain, with isolated maximum amounts of 20 inches (51 centimeters). “These rains could cause life-threatening flash floods and mud slides,” the NHC warned.

Alex was well southwest of the area worst hit by the massive BP oil spill — the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — though its strong winds were causing problems for the cleanup effort. The storm forced suspension of oil skimming operations as visiting Vice President Joe Biden heard complaints about the pace of cleanup efforts in the disaster zone. Alex was also the first Atlantic hurricane to form in June since 1995, according to the NHC.

FEMA, an agency of the US Department of Homeland Security, urged Americans to closely monitor the storm and be as prepared as possible. “The most important thing for people living in the area to do right now is to ensure their family is prepared and to follow the instructions of state and local officials,” said FEMA chief Craig Fugate. Alex killed at least 10 people when its rainwater unleashed landslides and floods in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador over the weekend.

Miami, June 30, 2010 (AFP)