First named storm of the season nears Florida

Windows were boarded up and the streets on Cedar Key in the Gulf of Mexico were desolate as the first tropical storm of the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season started moving over Florida early today, but forecasters said they did not expect Alberto to strengthen into a hurricane.

Windows were boarded up and the streets on Cedar Key in the Gulf of Mexico were desolate as the first tropical storm of the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season started moving over Florida early today, but forecasters said they did not expect Alberto to strengthen into a hurricane.

National Hurricane Centre director Max Mayfield said his staff would likely downgrade the hurricane warning it had issued yesterday to a tropical storm warning.

“The big concern now is going to be shifting to the rainfall and the tornado threat as it moves along the south-eastern (US) coast line,” Mayfield said.

Florida’s gulf coast between Tampa and the Panhandle could see a storm surge of seven to nine feet from Alberto, and more than 20,000 people, particularly in low-lying areas, were ordered to evacuate. But early reports indicated that the storm surge was not likely to be as serious as initially feared.

“The good news is it’s not going to be as high as the forecast,” Mayfield said. “The fact that winds are not terribly strong is helping.”

At 8am EDT (1pm Irish time), Alberto was centred about 50 miles east-south-east of Apalachicola and 75 miles west-north-west of Cedar Key, and was moving north-east at about 9 mph toward an expected landfall in the area around midday, the hurricane centre said. Its top sustained winds were at 65 mph; the threshold for a hurricane is 74 mph.

A large part of the storm was already over Florida, and its outer rain bands stretched into south-eastern Georgia, where forecasters warned of a threat of tornadoes. A flood watch was issued for noon today for 18 south-eastern South Carolina counties and rain totals exceeding five inches were possible in the area.

The top wind gust hit 60 mph early Tuesday in Tampa, and about 4 to 6 inches of much-needed rain had fallen in areas that had been dry, said Charles Paxton, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Ruskin. There were reports of limited power cuts, minor damage and fallen trees in the Tampa Bay area.

Forecasters said the storm’s chances of growing were “evaporating,” because dry air was being sucked into its centre. Storms need abundant supplies of warm, moist air to fuel their growth.

“There are no signs that Alberto is strengthening right now, so that’s good news,” said James Franklin, a senior hurricane specialist.

A hurricane warning was still posted for the gulf coast between Longboat Key and the Ochlockonee River, and a tropical storm warning was extended from Flagler Beach, Florida, northward to South Santee River, South Carolina.

The tropical depression that produced Alberto formed on Saturday, nine days after the June 1 start of the hurricane season. The storm’s winds accelerated with startling speed yesterday from 50 mph to 70 mph in just three hours.

Evacuation orders were posted for people in mobile homes or low-lying areas in at least five coastal counties stretching more than 100 miles. Those ordered evacuated included about 21,000 residents of Citrus, Levy and Taylor counties.

Forecasters said it could bring 4 to 10 inches of rain to central Florida and south-eastern Georgia. Rain started falling yesterday and at least two tornadoes had formed, though there were no reports of any injuries or damage.

In Florida, homeowners fuelled up their vehicles and stocked up on chain saws, plywood and other emergency supplies. Workers at a marina in St. Petersburg said they planned to work through the night securing more than 600 boats.

“This is a little earlier than I expected,” said marina manager Walter Miller. “But we’ve had a bad couple of years, so it’s not entirely unexpected.”

Alberto also prevented the crew of space shuttle Discovery from flying yesterday to the Kennedy Space Centre from Houston for several days of dress rehearsals for their expected launch in July.

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