Hurricane Alex weakens but leaves destruction in its wake

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Hurricane Alex weakened to a tropical storm yesterday as it moved further inland over north-eastern Mexico, dumping heavy rains that flooded cities, but sparing US oil facilities near its path.

Rain from the first named storm of the 2010 Atlantic season flooded about 80 per cent of the port city of Matamoros, sent uprooted trees crashing down on parked cars and forced thousands to flee low-lying fishing villages.

Inland in the industrial city of Monterrey, at least two people were killed by Alex's rains, which washed away cars, bridges and some houses, and turned dry desert beds into turbulent rivers.

The Category 2 hurricane struck the Tamaulipas coast around 3am yesterday. Although oil installations were not hit, some companies cut back production and evacuated staff. By Wednesday, oil companies had shut down production of more than 421,000 barrels a day, about a quarter of the Gulf's output, as a precaution.

BP said yesterday its Gulf oil and gas output was back to normal, although the passage of Alex slowed oil clean-up and containment efforts at its leaking deep-sea well off the Louisiana coast. Boats skimming the slick were returned to port.

Alex, which was expected to dissipate over Mexico's central mountain ranges overnight, killed a dozen people in Central America over the weekend.