McALLEN, Texas - Dolly spun into a hurricane yesterday, heading toward the US-Mexico border and the heavily populated Rio Grande Valley, where officials feared heavy rains could cause massive flooding and levee breaks.
Dolly was upgraded from a tropical storm yesterday afternoon with sustained winds near 75 miles per hour, and some strengthening of the Category 1 storm is forecast before landfall today.
A hurricane warning is in effect for the coast of Texas from Brownsville to Corpus Christi and in Mexico from Rio San Fernando northward.
In Mexico, Governor Eugenio Hernandez of Tamaulipas said officials are planning to evacuate 23,000 people to government shelters in Matamoros, Soto La Marina, and San Fernando.
Texas officials urged residents to move away from the Rio Grande levees because if Dolly continues to follow the same path as 1967's Hurricane Beulah, "the levees are not going to hold that much water," said Johnny Cavazos, coordinator for Cameron County Emergency Management.
The first bands of rain began to pass over South Padre Island and Reynosa, Mexico, yesterday afternoon, and the surf continued to get rougher.
Forecasters predicted Dolly would dump 15 to 20 inches of rain and bring coastal storm surge flooding of 4 to 6 feet above normal high tide levels.
Tropical storm warnings were issued for areas adjacent to the hurricane zone, and Governor Rick Perry declared 14 South Texas counties disaster areas, allowing state resources to be used to send equipment and emergency workers to areas in the storm's path.
The storm, combined with levees that have deteriorated in the 41 years since Beulah swept up the Rio Grande, pose a major flooding threat to low-lying counties along the border.
Beulah spawned more than 100 tornadoes across Texas and dumped 36 inches of rain in some parts of South Texas, killing 58 people and causing more than $1 billion in damage.
"We could have a triple-decker problem here," Cavazos said at a meeting of more than 100 county and local officials yesterday. "We believe that those [levees] will be breached if it continues on the same track, so please stay away from those levees."
Much of the damage to New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina was from levee breaks instead of wind. In one of several breaches, a levee broke in June in Winfield, Mo., allowing the Mississippi River to flood more than 100 homes.
Lines grew at centers giving out sandbags in the Rio Grande Valley. In Brownsville, a utility began draining its resacas - ponds and lakes formed by old bends in the Rio Grande - last week to prepare for rain.
In neighboring inland Hidalgo County, officials put out a call for volunteers to man five shelters that it planned to open for residents fleeing coastal counties.
The Navy began flying 104 of its aircraft out of Naval Air Station Corpus Christi to bases inland, said air station spokesman Bob Torres. Other aircraft will be sheltered on base in hangars and no evacuation was planned.
Those who planned to ride out the storm shopped early yesterday for supplies at a
Jesus Gil was lifting large coolers into the back of his pickup truck and had bought flashlights and batteries, bracing for the storm at both work and home.
"I'm just trying to be prepared," said Gil, who was in Houston in 2005 for the Hurricane Rita evacuation. He doesn't plan to leave this time, but bought extra gas just in case.
Major Jose Rivera of the Texas Army National Guard said troops were preparing at armories in Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, after Perry called up 1,200 Guard members to help.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement was evacuating its Port Isabel Detention Center, said spokeswoman Nina Pruneda.
Fewer than 1,000 people were being sent to other detention centers in Texas, though Pruneda declined to identify them for security reasons.
In the Gulf of Mexico, Shell Oil evacuated workers from oil rigs, but said it didn't expect production to be affected by the storm.
Residents of northern Mexico were taking the impending storm in stride. Blas Garica, a 62-year-old builder in Reynosa, was taping up his windows and putting sandbags in front of his porch to prepare.
"I'm not afraid because we flood frequently around here. If my house floods, we'll just run to the roof."