Storm Alberto gains strength as it roils Gulf Coast


Associated Press

MIAMI BEACH, Fla.

Subtropical Storm Alberto’s gusty rain and brisk winds roiled the seas off the U.S. Gulf Coast today, keeping white sandy beaches emptied of their usual Memorial Day crowds.

Forecasters warned of life-threatening surf conditions as Alberto approached the Florida Panhandle, where it was expected to make landfall later today. A few brief tornadoes were possible in much of Florida and parts of Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. But forecasters said flash flooding from heavy rain was the biggest risk in many areas.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said at 2 p.m. EDT Monday that Alberto was centered about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south-southwest of Panama City, Florida. The storm was expected to make landfall later Monday.

The storm had maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph) and was moving north at 8 mph (13 kph). However, once Alberto is inland and deprived of the warm waters that fuel tropical weather systems, the storm was expected to steadily weaken. A subtropical storm like Alberto has a less defined and cooler center than a tropical storm, and its strongest winds are found farther from its center. Subtropical storms can develop into tropical storms, which in turn can strengthen into hurricanes.

Rough conditions were roiling the seas off the eastern and northern Gulf Coast region, and officials warned swimmers to stay out of the water through Tuesday due to life-threatening swells and rip currents.

Between four and eight inches of rain could pummel Florida Panhandle, eastern and central Alabama, and western Georgia. Isolated deluges of 12 inches were possible. The Florida Keys were likely to get several inches of rain. Two to six inches were possible from Tennessee east through the Carolinas.

Lifeguards posted red flags along the white sands of Pensacola Beach, where swimming and wading were banned amid high surf and dangerous conditions. Gusty showers began lashing parts of Florida on Sunday, and authorities warned of the possibility of flash flooding.

The hurricane center said a tropical storm warning was in effect from the Suwannee River in Florida to the Alabama-Florida state line.

About 2,600 customers were without power in northwestern Florida on Monday morning, according to Florida’s Division of Emergency Management.

Mark Bowen, the Bay County Emergency management director, said Alberto’s biggest threat would be its heavy rains, with forecasts of anywhere from four to 12 inches (10 to 30 centimeters) of rain in some areas. Storm surge flooding was less of a concern because Alberto’s arrival would not coincide with high tide, he said.

Some tourists said the rainy weather would not dampen their vacations.

Janet Rhumes said her group of friends from Kansas had been planning their Memorial Day weekend on Navarre Beach since October, and no tropical storm could deter them.

“We’ve never seen one before and we’re here celebrating a friend’s 20th birthday,” Rhumes told the Northwest Florida Daily News. “So how often can you say you rode a storm out?”

Rhumes said her group prepared for the storm by stocking up on groceries.

“We’re going to play cards and if there’s a break, we’ll head down to the beach,” she said. “We’ll hang out and see how it goes.”

In Miami, organizers called off the sea portion of the Miami Beach Air & Sea Show on Sunday because of heavy rain and rough waters. And in the Tampa Bay area on the central Gulf Coast, cities offered sandbags for homeowners worried about floods.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a hurricane season forecast Thursday that calls for 10 to 16 named storms, with five to nine hurricanes. One to four hurricanes could be “major” with sustained winds of at least 111 mph (178 kph).

If that forecast holds, it would make for a near-normal or above-normal season

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