(CNN) — Tropical Storm Alex — temporarily weakened to a tropical depression — was on track to become hurricane strength once it makes its way back to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico late Sunday, but forecasters expect the system to steer clear of oil-affected areas.
“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.
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.
Sunday morning, Alex was poised to enter the Gulf after crossing the Yucatan peninsula. Its center was about 85 miles (135 km) south of Campeche, Mexico and about 80 miles (125 km) east of Cuidad del Carmen, Mexico.
Tropical storm warnings for the coast of Belize and the east coast of the Yucatan have been discontinued, the hurricane center said. Earlier Sunday, Alex soaked Belize after making landfall in the Central American nation several hours earlier with maximum sustained winds of 65 mph.
Alex’s winds had dropped to near 35 mph (55 km/hr) as of 11 a.m. ET Sunday, the hurricane center said. But the storm was moving west-northwest at near 12 mph (19 km/hr) and “the center of Alex will move across the Yucatan peninsula and enter the southern Gulf of Mexico later today,” the hurricane center said.
Alex was expected to regain tropical storm intensity Sunday night or early Monday, forecasters said. It is forecast to become a Category 1 hurricane before making landfall Thursday morning near La Pesca, Mexico.
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.”