(CNN) — Tropical Storm Alex could strengthen into a hurricane Monday but is heading away from the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the National Hurricane Center said.
The storm could become a major hurricane and could make landfall anywhere from Port Lavaca, Texas, to Tampico, Mexico, the center said.
“We will know much more as this storm continues to intensify today and tomorrow,” the center said in a statement.
Forecasting models suggest that it could make landfall in northeastern Mexico, probably Thursday.
“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.
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.
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, 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 was upgraded to a tropical storm Saturday in the Caribbean.
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,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida. “And that is where you really get the enormous destruction, because it’s just very difficult to clean up those pristine bays.”
Meanwhile, Mississippi officials reported oily tar balls washing up on their mainland shores for the first time Sunday.
“It has hit our shores,” said Pascagoula, Mississippi, Mayor Robbie Maxwell, adding that tar balls appeared on a nearby stretch of beach Sunday afternoon.
“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.
Mississippi officials said while tar balls and globlike “mousse patties” washed ashore in at least four locations, the areas affected were relatively small and no beaches were closed.