MCALLEN, TEXAS — Dolly spun into a hurricane Tuesday, heading toward the U.S.-Mexico border and the heavily populated Rio Grande Valley, where officials feared heavy rains could cause massive flooding and levee breaks.
Dolly's sustained winds of about 80 mph classified it as a Category 1 hurricane. It was expected to strengthen before landfall today.
A hurricane warning is in effect for the coast of Texas from Brownsville to Corpus Christi and in Mexico from Rio San Fernando northward.
Texas officials urged residents to move away from the Rio Grande levees because if Dolly continues on the same path as 1967's Hurricane Beulah, "the levees are not going to hold that much water," said Cameron County Emergency Management Coordinator Johnny Cavazos.
The first bands of rain began to pass over South Padre Island on Tuesday afternoon and the surf continued to get rougher. Vacationers packed up to head to the mainland.
Intermittent downpours were moving through Brownsville by late afternoon. Forecasters predicted Dolly would dump 15 to 20 inches of rain and bring coastal storm surge flooding of 4 to 6 feet above normal high tide levels.
Gov. Rick Perry declared 14 counties disasters, allowing state resources to be used to send equipment and emergency workers into the storm's path. He also called up the National Guard.
The hurricane, combined with levees that have deteriorated in the 41 years since Beulah swept up the Rio Grande, pose a major flooding threat to low-lying counties along the border. Beulah spawned more than 100 tornadoes across Texas and dumped 36 inches of rain in some parts of the state, killing dozens and causing more than $1 billion damage.
"We could have a triple-decker problem here," Cavazos told a meeting of more than 100 county and local officials. "We believe that those [levees] will be breached if it continues on the same track. So please stay away from those levees."
In Mexico, Tamaulipas Gov. Eugenio Hernandez Flores said officials planned to evacuate 23,000 people to shelters in Matamoros, Soto La Marina and San Fernando.
But residents were taking the impending storm in stride.
Blas Garcia, a 62-year-old builder in Reynosa, was taping up his windows and putting sandbags in front of his porch.
"I'm not afraid, because we flood frequently around here," he said. "If my house floods, we'll just run to the roof."