Hurricane Alberto puts Florida and Caribbean on alert

FLORIDA and the Caribbean islands were last night braced for the first hurricane of the season, although scientists believe that there will be no repeat of last year’s record-breaking devastation.

Scientists predict the 2006 season could produce up to 16 named storms, six of them major hurricanes.

Last year’s hurricane season was the busiest and most destructive on record. Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana and Mississippi and was blamed for more than 1,570 deaths in Louisiana alone. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from New Orleans, many of whom are yet to return home after much of the city was flooded.

Yesterday forecasters issued a hurricane warning for part of Florida’s Gulf Coast as Tropical Storm Alberto, the first named storm of the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season, quickly and unexpectedly gained strength.

Officials warned that some areas could see a storm surge of up to 10 feet. Rain was already falling and two tornados were reported, although no injuries or damage were reported.

“We’re talking about powerful forces of nature,” said Governor Jeb Bush. “People need to take this very seriously.”

“This potentially could be a hurricane, it has a potential wide impact for a lot of people in our state,” Mr Bush told the emergency response team monitoring the storm in Tallahassee.

Alberto’s core wasn’t expected to reach Florida until Tuesday, but with tropical storm-force wind stretching 230 miles from the centre, powerful gusts may be felt long before it makes landfall.

Alberto drenched western Cuba yesterday after a weekend of heavy rains prompted evacuations, caused some dilapidated buildings to collapse and flooded low-lying areas in Havana and neighbouring Pinar del Rio Province.

The official Prensa Latina news agency reported a handful of old buildings around Havana had crumbled in the heavy rains – a common occurrence during even the weakest storms – but there were no reports of other major damage or injuries.

Some areas of Pinar del Rio lost electricity for up to 12 hours, the official daily newspaper, Granma, reported. Granma said heavy rains caused damage in some agricultural regions, but Cuba’s most important crop – tobacco – was unaffected because the harvest had already been completed, with the leaves used to make the island’s world-famous cigars safe and dry inside curing houses.

Last season was the busiest in 154 years of storm tracking, with records for the number of named storms (28) and hurricanes (15).

Meteorologists used up their list of 21 proper names — beginning with Arlene and ending with Wilma — and had to use the Greek alphabet to name storms for the first time.

This year, however, meteorologists have said the Atlantic is not as warm as it was at this time in 2005, meaning potential storms would have less of the energy needed to develop into hurricanes.

Last year, the first named storm of the season was Tropical Storm Arlene, which formed June 9, 2005, and made landfall just west of Pensacola in the Florida Panhandle.

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