With recent beach closures along the Gulf Coast already taking a toll on Florida’s tourism and vacation sectors, it seems hard to imagine things getting much worse for the areas affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. But oil slicks and tar balls aren’t the only culprits lurking in the gulf.

Hurricane watches are currently in effect in parts of northern Mexico and along a stretch of the Texas coast, while Tropical Storm Alex slowly churns through the gulf at a rate of 5 miles per hour. If Alex continues to strengthen, it will be on track to become a Category 3 storm when it eventually makes landfall in North America. The storm is already being held responsible for at least four deaths in Central America, where it tore past the coastal towns of Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, causing landslides and severe flooding.

The gulf has witnessed the after-effects of hurricanes in the past, but with the addition of thousands of square miles of oil on its surface, any forthcoming storms could be much more devastating. The winds generated by the storm could potentially move the oil further onto land, or disrupt the cleanup effort in the affected areas. In an interview with the Associated Press, hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart said that Alex likely wouldn’t hit land near the oil spill area but still had the potential to hinder oil cleanup operations in the area. And though experts suggest the storm will not directly impact the oil spill, they have yet to rule out an easterly shift.

Carmen Gibson, public information officer with the Florida Division of Emergency Management, says that every precaution is being made in light of the Deepwater Horizon spill. “We are closely monitoring trajectories for both the oil spill impacting the Gulf of Mexico as well as tropical activity that could affect Florida’s coast,” she says. “The State Emergency Response Team has experience responding to multiple disasters simultaneously. In 2004-2005 the SERT responded to multiple hurricanes that impacted Florida directly and simultaneously assisted with the Hurricane Katrina response in Mississippi. In such times, the SERT may draw upon resources and personnel from counties that have not been impacted, as well as mutual aid from other states and secondary facilities.”

Gibson adds that on Wed., June 23, the SERT conducted a small exercise in which staff was relocated to secondary working locations, as if they were responding to a second event. The exercise was successful and the team is incorporating all lessons learned into future planning.

In a 1 p.m. forecast yesterday, the National Hurricane Center said that Alex was “slowly moving North-Northwest with no change in strength.” Its maximum sustained winds were measured at 60 mph.

Forecasting models suggest the storm will make landfall Thursday.

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