Hurricane Opal strengthened Monday over the southern Gulf of Mexico, dumping heavy rains and causing extensive flooding that forced tens of thousands of coastal dwellers from their homes.
At least seven people were reported dead and 20 missing in floodwaters in Tabasco state as the slow-moving storm grew Monday into the ninth hurricane of the Atlantic Ocean tropical storm season. It carried sustained winds of 80 mph.
A hurricane watch will likely be posted this morning for the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to northwest Florida as Opal continues moving northward, National Hurricane Center forecasters said.
As rivers swelled, more than 20,000 people in Campeche state were forced to abandon their homes during the weekend; five of the deaths, including a baby boy who drowned, occurred in Campeche, the Notimex government news agency said. Four hundred communities in Tabasco were flooded.
Civil defense officials urged residents of low-lying rivers, lagoons and coastal areas to seek high ground in schools and other make-shift shelters.
At 11 p.m. EDT, Opal’s center was about 525 miles south-southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Before becoming a hurricane, Opal dumped heavy rain all along the southern rim of the Gulf of Mexico.
The state of Tabasco has received 20 percent of its annual average rainfall in the past four days.
Opal was drifting north Monday night near 8 mph.
Meteorologist Mike Hopkins said in Coral Gables that Opal was expected to strengthen over warm Gulf waters.
He did not rule out the possibility the storm could turn toward the United States.
“Anybody on the Gulf Coast all the way around should be watching,” Hopkins said. “Right now, this hurricane is just meandering along. It is moving very slowly and really hasn’t found anything to grab onto yet. We’re waiting.”
Twelve-foot waves were reported in Mexican waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Most commercial and fishing ports were closed, as were some airports.
Meanwhile, heavy rains associated with Opal pounded Mexico’s southern Gulf Coast rim. Tropical storm warnings remained in effect from the eastern side of the Yucatan peninsula westward to Veracruz state.
Opal began as a tropical depression, changed to a tropical storm after crossing the Yucatan Peninsula over the weekend and gained hurricane strength over the Gulf.
In Louisiana, the state’s only inhabited barrier island, Grand Isle, was on alert Monday as the storm approached. Mayor Andy Valence said residents were “ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice.”