Monday, September 6, 2010

Tropical Storm Hermine makes landfall in Mexico

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — Tropical Storm Hermine slammed into Mexico's northern Gulf coast near the U.S. border late Monday with winds of 65 mph (100 kph), threatening heavy rains that could cause flash flooding in Mexico and Texas.

Mexican authorities urged people to move to shelters while officials in Texas offered sandbags and warned of flash floods as Hermine neared. The storm was expected to cross the border in the coming hours after touching land about 40 miles (65 km) south of Brownsville, Texas. It was expected to push northward up Texas on Tuesday.

Hermine threatened to bring as much as a foot of rainfall to some areas battered by Hurricane Alex in June. Remnant rains from Alex killed at least 12 people in flooding in Mexico.

Hermine "will briefly be over Mexico, and then we're expecting it to produce very heavy rainfall over south Texas," said Eric Blake, a hurricane specialist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center. "We're expecting widespread rainfall totals of 4 to 8 inches with isolated amounts of a foot possible. Especially in the hilly and mountainous terrain, that could cause life-threatening flash flooding."

The cattle-ranching region is one of the most dangerous hotspots in Mexico's turf war between two drug cartels. It is the same area where 72 migrants were killed two weeks ago in what it believed to be the country's worst drug gang massacre to date.

Mexican emergency officials urged those living in low-lying coastal areas to move to shelters, and authorities in Tamaulipas state began evacuating 3,500 people around Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville. Classes in Matamoros and several other Mexican towns were canceled, and authorities began releasing water from some dams to make room for expected rains.

"We urge the general population to be on alert for possible floods and mudslides," said Salvador Trevino, director of civil defense for Tamaulipas, where Matamoros is located.

Officials also began releasing water from reservoirs to make room for the expected heavy rains, Trevino said.

In inland Hidalgo state, authorities said heavy rains caused by the passing storm unleashed landslides that damaged 20 residences, left 120 people homeless and cut off small communities.

Unlike Alex, Hermine's approach to Texas brought far less anxiety. No evacuations had been ordered as of late Monday, and shelters throughout the flood-prone Rio Grande Valley were on standby but were still keeping their doors shut.

Schools around Brownsville, where Alex dumped nearly a foot of rain in June, closed Tuesday as a precaution. Officials said they wanted to keep school buses from driving in wind gusts that could reach 40 mph.

Sandbags were also made available across South Texas, but there were few takers.

"We have people who still have some leftover from Hurricane Alex," said Tony Pena, emergency management coordinator for Hidalgo County.

Hermine came at a bad time for a region still drying out from Alex and another tropical system in July, which both helped cause the Rio Grande to jump its banks. Pena said it was only a week ago that the county shut off its last water pump, after having more than 100 going at peak flooding this summer.

"We've held up OK," Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos said. "But a few more weeks of warm, sunny weather would've helped us out a little bit."

On the Texas coast, emergency officials readied pumping equipment and distributed sandbags in Cameron County, said John Cavazos, the county's emergency management coordinator. He said they are also suggesting that people in recreational vehicles in county parks along the coast should move.

"Anyone living in ... an area that's known to flood, they need to take some precautions," Cavazos said.

No evacuations had been ordered in Texas.

In Hidalgo County, located inland, just west of Cameron and Willacy counties, officials were also distributing sandbags and anticipating the need to pump floodwaters

"Residents are urged to make preparations now and to remain alert to this rapidly-developing weather situation," Hidalgo County Judge Rene A. Ramirez said in a news release.