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Tar balls reported on Mississippi mainland; Alex heads into Gulf

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Storm could stop oil cleanup for 2 weeks
  • NEW: Alex re-strengthens to tropical storm
  • Mississippi reports tar balls washing ashore on mainland in localized areas
  • Storm expected to avoid oil-affected areas
  • Gulf residents worry it could push more oil ashore

(CNN) -- Mississippi officials reported oily tar balls washing up on their mainland shores for the first time Sunday, as authorities throughout the Gulf Coast region kept a wary eye on Tropical Storm Alex.

"It has hit our shores," said Pascagoula, Mississippi, Mayor Robbie Maxwell, adding that tar balls washed up on a nearby stretch of beach during the afternoon Sunday.

"This is what we've been expecting. We had hoped and prayed we would somehow miss this, but it's hit us now. The good news is that for the last five or six weeks we've been preparing to attack it when it hit our shores, and that's exactly what we've done," Maxwell said.

A 23-person crew was out on the beach Sunday afternoon, collecting tar balls, he said.

"Now that we have it on our shores, every day it'll have to be attacked again," the mayor added.

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Mississippi officials said while tar balls and glob-like "mousse patties" washed ashore in at least four locations, the areas affected were relatively small and no beaches were closed.

Meanwhile, Alex restrengthened into a Tropical Storm Sunday night as it headed into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, according to the National Weather Service but it is expected to steer clear of oil-affected areas. The storm had temporarily weakened to a tropical depression as it passed over Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

"We think the storm is going to stay on a more southern track. That would be good news because it would avoid the area near the oil spill," said Todd Kimberlain of the National Hurricane Center.

However, forecasters have not ruled out an easterly shift in Alex's path.

"We all know the weather is unpredictable, and we could have a sudden last-minute change," said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal government's response manager.

The governors of Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama declared Sunday a day of prayer in their respective states as efforts to cap the massive gusher continue.

Researchers have estimated that between 35,000 barrels -- about 1.5 million gallons -- and 60,000 barrels -- about 2.5 million gallons -- of oil are gushing into the ocean every day.

If Alex forces a work stoppage at the ruptured BP well, officials fear that as much as 2.5 million gallons of oil could flow into the Gulf for two weeks.

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That is because it would take 14 days to put everything back in place -- meaning the containment cap would be off for that period, allowing oil to flow freely, Allen said.

BP plans to place a third rig called the Helix Producer at the well site next week, which will increase the amount of oil being captured to 53,000 barrels a day, Allen said. That, too, could be disrupted if Alex affects the area.

Alex is the first named storm of what is expected to be a fierce Atlantic hurricane season. It formed in the Caribbean on Saturday.

Tropical storm warnings for the coast of Belize and the east coast of the Yucatan were discontinued earlier Sunday, the hurricane center said. Alex soaked Belize after making landfall in the Central American nation several hours earlier with maximum sustained winds of 65 mph.

After dropping in wind speed over the Yucatan, Alex's winds increased to 45 mph with higher gusts Sunday night, the National Hurricane Center said. The system was moving west-northwest at near 7 mph.

"Additional strengthening is forecast during the next 48 hours, and Alex could become a hurricane in the next 48 hours," the hurricane center said. Alex is expected to make landfall Thursday morning near La Pesca, Mexico.

In the meantime, forecasters said Sunday that Alex was expected to dump 4 to 8 inches of rain over the Yucatan peninsula, southern Mexico and Guatemala through Tuesday, with 15 inches possible over mountainous areas.

"These rains could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides," the hurricane center said.

Oil company BP said the storm has not forced any evacuations at the oil spill site. But, to the south, BP and Shell were evacuating all nonessential personnel from oil platforms as a precaution.

Gulf Coast residents feared that high winds and storm surges could spread the slick and push more oil ashore into bays, estuaries and pristine beaches, exacerbating the oil disaster triggered by BP's ruptured well.

"The greatest nightmare with this storm approaching is that it takes this oil on the surface of the Gulf and blows it over the barrier islands into the bays and the estuaries," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida said. "And that is where you really get the enormous destruction, because it's just very difficult to clean up those pristine bays."

If the storm heads to the east of the oil spill, it would send the oil farther out to sea.

If the storm heads more directly toward the central Gulf and Louisiana, it might push the oil toward Florida.

"We've never been in this situation before," CNN meteorologist Karen Maginnis said. "We've never seen an oil spill that encompassed the Gulf like this, end up so close to shore."

CNN's April Williams, Patty Lane, Chuck Johnston, Brandon Miller, T.J. Holmes and Moni Basu contributed to this report.